And there is some wiggle room in other areas. Rhode Island adoption agencies say they consider would-be parents' misdemeanor marijuana convictions, but don't necessarily block adoption. Dara Chadwick, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said a marijuana misdemeanor for a doctor or nurse could bring discipline but might just result in a referral to counseling, depending on the facts of the case.

Still, Rhode Island employers can ask if prospective employees have been convicted of a crime. And local offenders can't escape federal rules, which can mean eviction from public housing and, 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 offense.

There are concerns about racial injustice, too. A report by OpenDoors, a Providence agency that works with people released from prison, found blacks and Latinos in Rhode Island were arrested 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.

Moreover, there's not much evidence that decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot encourages people to smoke. According to US Department of Health data from 2008-2009, the percentage of those 12 and older who had toked up in the previous month in so-called "decrim" states ranged from a low of 4.49 percent in Mississippi to a high of 11.53 percent in Alaska.

In the rest of the country, the rates looked about the same — ranging from a low of 3.56 percent in Utah to a high of 10.83 percent in Vermont, with Rhode Island just behind at 9.98 percent.

Capecchi made that very point in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But if the argument, and the others put forward by advocates that day, were intended for the full panel, they were aimed most directly at a single, little-known senator, sitting on the back bench.

ON THE FOREFRONT The 14 states that impose fines, but no jail time.


Senator Michael McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, is an understated sort. A quiet presence in public hearings. He doesn't make headlines and he didn't respond to requests for comment for this article.

But his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee lends him considerable influence in the General Assembly.

And decriminalization advocates, convinced they can prevail on the Senate floor if they can coax the legislation out of committee, are devoting considerable energy to winning him over.

Last weekend, that meant members of the Brown University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy walking door-to-door in McCaffrey's modest, suburban neighborhood, collecting about 60 signatures on Marijuana Policy Project-designed postcards urging the senator to support decriminalization.

But advocates are also making a behind-the-scenes push to get sympathetic lawyers and retired law enforcement figures — the sort of people they think McCaffrey might find most convincing — in front of the senator.

Even if they can sway McCaffrey, though, there is still work to do on the House side.

Supporters are not all that concerned about House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Edith Ajello, a liberal Providence Democrat who supports the legislation. But they will have to win over Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, who hasn't yet committed to a vote on the bill and will have to consider the election-year jitters of rank-and-file legislators.

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Related: Up in smoke?, The Last Weed Defendant, Portland’s medical-pot prognosis: Keep patients waiting, More more >
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