The long-term prospects for decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana always seemed good.
The two prime sponsors of the legislation — Senator Josh Miller, a liberal Cranston Democrat, and State Representative John Edwards, a moderate Tiverton Democrat — had lined up significant support in the General Assembly.
And a January poll commissioned by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project showed 65 percent of Rhode Islanders in favor of decriminalization and just 24 percent opposed.
But just a couple of months ago, it seemed unlikely that the measure — turning possession of an ounce or less of pot into a civil offense on par with a speeding ticket — would pass this legislative session (see "The quiet push to decriminalize marijuana possession in Rhode Island," 4.18.12).
Advocates were unsure that they could win over Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Michael McCaffrey, a relatively conservative Warwick Democrat who had jurisdiction over the Senate version of the bill.
And there was broader concern that lawmakers, up for re-election in the fall, would shy away from any measure with even a whiff of controversy — no matter how sweet.
But on June 5, the House and Senate voted to approve the legislation by wide margins. And while Governor Chafee had not tipped his hand as the Phoenix went to press, most observers expected him to sign the bill — or at least allow it to become law without his signature. "If I were gambling money," said Edwards, the House sponsor of the measure, "I wouldn't bet the farm on it, but I'd put down a sizable amount of money."
So how did a bill that seemed destined for delay win passage this year?
Supporters used some of the classic advocacy tools. They brought in David Lewis, founder of the Brown University Center for Alcohol & Addiction Studies, for a rally at the State House. They got dozens of McCaffrey's constituents to sign postcards in support of the legislation. And they lobbied Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed's office.
But Miller, the Senate sponsor of the bill, suggests strong support in the chamber itself — reflected in the final 28-6 vote — may have been the most important factor. That and a key compromise between advocates and Senator McCaffrey.
The sponsors, at McCaffrey's behest, added a "three strikes" amendment to the bill: a third violation, under the law, would result in a criminal misdemeanor. But all three violations must happen within an 18-month window — a proviso that, proponents hope, will effectively neuter the amendment.
It is an interesting approach, but not unique. "Decrim" states including Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, and North Carolina impose criminal penalties for multiple violations.
The central argument for making small-time possession a civil offense: a criminal conviction can have life-altering impacts on offenders' employment, education, and housing prospects.
Rhode Island is actually among the most lenient states when it comes to these so-called "collateral sanctions." Some of the impacts felt in other states — on the right to vote or serve on a jury, for instance — do not apply here.
But Rhode Island employers can ask about job applicants' criminal histories. And local offenders are subject to federal rules, which can mean eviction from public housing or, for college students, bans on federal grants and loans: one year for the first drug possession offense, two years for the second offense, and indefinitely for the third.