There are also concerns about racial injustice. A report by OpenDoors, a Providence agency that works with ex-cons, found Rhode Island law enforcement arrested blacks and Latinos at rates 1.6 times higher than whites for first-time marijuana possession in 2007 — even though whites have historically been heavier users of the drug.

Robert J. Capecchi, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project who worked on the Rhode Island bill, says these kinds of arguments have finally begun to win broad acceptance.

The Ocean State's neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot. Last month, Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke upset incumbent Congressman Silvestre Reyes in a primary fight that focused attention on O'Rourke's support for legalizing marijuana.

And while critics raised questions about the poll's methodology, a recent Rasmussen survey showed 56 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol or tobacco. "It's mainstream support at this point," says Capecchi. "We're not the radical outliers anymore."

If the Rhode Island bill becomes law, the state will be the fifteenth to decriminalize.

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