FORBIDDEN LEAF The General Assembly may be skittish about decriminalizing in an election year.
The often frustrating push to get a workable medical marijuana regime up and running in Rhode Island has received plenty of ink in recent years. But the state's pot politics don't end there.

For three years now, advocates and legislators have waged a separate, little-noticed campaign that could have a much broader impact: decriminalizing possession of an ounce or less of the drug.

Senator Josh Miller, a liberal Cranston Democrat, and Representative John Edwards, a moderate Tiverton Democrat, are the lead sponsors of so-called "decrim" bills.

And if the legislation passes, anyone caught with a small amount of weed would face a civil fine of $150 — equivalent to a speeding ticket — and avoid the stain of a criminal record.

The measure didn't go anywhere the last two legislative sessions. But supporters say they have reason for optimism this time around.

A January poll commissioned by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project found 65 percent of Rhode Islanders in favor of decriminalization and just 24 percent opposed.

More than half the legislators in the House and Senate have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill — no guarantee they'll be there when the measure comes up for a vote, but a positive sign, nonetheless.

And advocates can now point to both of Rhode Island's neighbors as inspiration: last year, Connecticut joined Massachusetts and 12 other states that impose fines, but no jail time, for simple possession.

The path to decriminalization in Rhode Island, though, is not as clear as it might seem.

Law enforcement is opposed, concerned about the message it would send to kids. And any legislation with even a whiff of controversy — no matter how sweet — faces long odds in an election year.

The General Assembly, moreover, has a social conservative streak that has stymied many a progressive cause in recent years; just ask supporters of gay marriage, who stormed Smith Hill last year with substantial public support and precedents in Massachusetts and Connecticut, only to watch their bill die.

But supporters, undaunted, are pushing ahead.


Robert J. Capecchi, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, meets me in his hotel lobby a couple of blocks from the State House.

He is just a day removed from testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where response to the bill was decidedly mixed. But Capecchi is feeling upbeat about decriminalization's chances.

"It's pretty easy to show legislators the support is there," he says, referring to the polling data. "It's not a tough vote."

The Marijuana Policy Project is a key player in the local effort: commissioning the public opinion survey, printing postcards for voters to send to their representatives, and helping to marshal the arguments for the bill.

The most compelling argument focuses on the impact of so-called "collateral sanctions." When someone pleads guilty to marijuana possession, the criminal record that results can deal life-altering blows to his employment, education, and housing prospects.

Rhode Island is actually among the most lenient states when it comes to these sanctions. Some of the impacts felt elsewhere — on the right to vote, for instance, or to serve on a jury — do not apply here.

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