Governor Chafee Signs Rhode Island Decriminalization Into Law
Earlier today, Governor Chafee signed Rhode Island’s decriminalization measure into law. Last week, both the state Senate and General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the bill. The new law reduces the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by an individual 18 years or older from a criminal misdemeanor (punishable by one year in jail and a $500 maximum fine) to a non-arrestable civil offense — punishable by a $150 fine, no jail time, and no criminal record. It takes effect April 1, 2013.
Eight states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, and Oregon — similarly define the private, non-medical possession of marijuana by adults as a civil, non-criminal offense.
Five additional states — Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio — treat marijuana possession offenses as a fine-only misdemeanor offense. Alaska imposes no criminal or civil penalty for the private possession of small amounts of marijuana.
You can read further coverage here.
New York State Assembly Approves Medical Marijuana Measure
Only several hours after Governor Chafee put his signature on decriminalization in Rhode Island, the New York state Assembly approved of AB 7347, which would amend state law to allow qualified patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana for therapeutic purposes, by a 90-50 vote. This marks the third time the Assembly has passed such a measure; however, in previous years similar legislation has stalled in the Senate. Action is now awaited on AB 7347’s companion legislation Senate Bill 2774. You can contact your state Senator and urge them to support this legislation by clicking here. You can read the bill text here.
By a vote of more than 2 to 1, members of the Rhode Island General Assembly today approved legislation to significantly reduce the state’s criminal marijuana possession penalties.
Members of the House and Senate passed twin bills, House Bill 7092 and Senate Bill 2253, which amend state law so that the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by an individual 18 years or older is reduced from a criminal misdemeanor (punishable by one year in jail and a $500 maximum fine) to a non-arrestable civil offense — punishable by a $150 fine, no jail time, and no criminal record. You can read NORML’s testimony in favor of these measures here.
House Bill 7092/Senate Bill 2253 now await concurrence votes, after which time they will be sent to Gov. Lincoln Chafee. [Update: In a radio interview this morning, Gov. Chafee stated that he is 'inclined' to sign the measures into law. Read the full summary of Chafee's remarks here.] If you reside in Rhode Island, you can contact Gov. Chafee on behalf of these measures here.
According to a 2012 statewide poll, commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, 65 percent of Rhode Island’s residents are in favor of decriminalization. In recent years, neighboring Connecticut (in 2011) and Massachusetts (in 2009, via a voter-approved initiative) have enacted similar marijuana decriminalization laws.
Rhode Island lawmakers have previously approved legislation legalizing the possession and state-licensed distribution of cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
Presently, in eight states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, and Oregon — the private, non-medical possession of marijuana by an adult is defined under the law as a civil, non-criminal offense.
Five additional states — Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio — treat marijuana possession offenses as a fine-only misdemeanor offense. Alaska law imposes no criminal or civil penalty for the private possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults.
In all other states, marijuana possession for personal use remains a criminal offense — punishable by an arrest, potential incarceration, and a criminal record.
Rhode Island: Governor Signs Legislation Authorizing State-Licensed Medical Marijuana ‘Compassion Centers’May 24, 2012
Governor Lincoln Chafee signed legislation into law this week authorizing the creation of state-licensed ‘compassion centers’ to engage in the production and distribution of cannabis for authorized patients. It is the second time since 2009 that state lawmakers have approved legislation allowing for the state regulation of medical marijuana facilities.
Under the new law, Senate Bill 2555, health regulators will license three not-for-profit entities, known as ‘compassion centers,’ to operate within the state. Compassion centers will not be allowed to cultivate more than 150 cannabis plants on the premises at any one time, only 99 of which may be mature. Centers will also be restricted to possessing no more than 1,500 ounces of usable product at any one time.
Lawmakers have suggested that the imposed statutory limits will lower the likelihood of federal law enforcement officials interfering with the implementation of the law. At least one other state, New Mexico, imposes similar caps on authorized dispensaries.
State lawmakers initially enacted legislation allowing for the authorization of ‘compassion centers’ in 2009. However, Gov. Chafee suspended the law in 2011, stating, “[L]arge-scale commercial operations such as Rhode Island’s compassion centers (would) be potential targets of ‘vigorous’ criminal and civil enforcement efforts by the federal government.” Earlier this year, Gov. Chafee agreed to revisit the issue and to work with lawmakers to amend the law so that a limited number of small-scale distribution centers could apply for state licenses.
In response to the legislature’s actions, US Attorney Peter Neronha has said he will continue to oversee the enforcement federal drug laws. However, he has not specifically said whether ‘compassion centers’ will be targeted.
Three states – Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico – presently issue licenses to allow for the state-sanctioned production and distribution of cannabis. So far, dispensary facilities in those states have operated largely without federal interference.
Similar licensing legislation approved in recent years in Arizona, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, DC has yet to be implemented by local lawmakers.
In February, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell announced that he was suspending the implementation of a similar licensing program in that state.
Rhode Island lawmakers legalized the limited use and cultivation of cannabis for therapeutic purposes in 2006. Over 3,000 Rhode Islanders are presently authorized under state law to use cannabis.
The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2009 (via the Ogden memo to all United States attorneys):
“The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2011 (via the May 2, 2011 letter sent from the office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, to the Arizona Department of Health Services re: the implementation of the voter-approved Medical Marijuana Program):
“The United States Attorneys Office … will vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in the unlawful manufacturing, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”
A lot can change in two years — including the administration’s attitude toward the state-authorized use and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes.
In April, NORML blogged about the U.S. Department of Justice, particularly U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan of Seattle and Michael Ormsby of Spokane, threatening “civil and criminal legal remedies” (read: sanctions) against Washington state citizens, including state employees, who assist with or engage in the production or distribution of medical cannabis, “even if such activities are permitted under state law.” The U.S. Attorneys’ threats came in response to an inquiry from Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, who most likely was seeking ‘political cover’ so that she could publicly ‘justify’ her veto of legislation (SB 5073) that sought to license and regulate the dispensing of medical cannabis to qualified persons, and would have enacted additional legal protections for patients who voluntarily participated in a statewide registry. The threats worked; Gov. Gregoire cited them in her veto statement Friday.
In fact, the threats worked so well, that in recent days U.S. Attorneys in other states with active medical marijuana programs have begun issuing similar menacing statements.
Last week in Colorado, where state regulators have licensed over 800 state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent a letter to the state’s Attorney General alleging that the federal Justice Department will “vigorously” prosecute individuals or organizations engaged in “unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” A spokesman for Walsh’s office adds, “In the eye of the federal government, there’s only one type of marijuana. And marijuana is a Schedule I controlled [federally prohibited] substance.”
Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke fired off a similarly worded letter this week to Will Humble, the director of the state Department of Health Services, which is overseeing the implementation of Proposition 203. Under the law, which was approved by voters last fall and was enacted on April 15, the state must register qualified patients who have a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis and also license dispensaries to provide it to them. However, according to Burke, said dispensaries that are compliant with the state’s law will “not [be] protect[ed] from [federal] criminal prosecution, asset forfeiture, and other civil penalties.”
Finally, in Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced this week that he is suspending the state’s nascent medical marijuana distribution program, set to begin this June. In March, the representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Health selected three applicants to operate the state’s first-ever, government licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. (The dispensaries program was initially approved by lawmakers in 2009, but the winning applicants were not decided upon until two years later.) Predictably, Chafee’s abrupt change of heart came after receiving a hand-delivered letter from U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha Friday threatening to prosecute civilly and/or criminally those involved in the dispensary program.
“Mr. Obama’s … true intention is to stifle the development of any viable legal cannabis distribution industry. By sending threat letters to Rhode Island and Arizona, states that have created clear and unambiguous laws for medical cannabis providers to follow, it is obvious that Mr. Obama isn’t opposed to medical cannabis, per se, but terribly opposed to medical cannabusiness.
Belville adds: “If (medical cannabusiness) establish (themselves), people will become accustomed to safe, secure, well-run businesses that deliver consistent, reliable, tested cannabis products. They’ll appreciate the way these places revitalize sagging economies, provide jobs, and contribute taxes to budget-starved localities. They’ll realize all the scaremongering by the government about what would happen if marijuana was legal, even for sick people, was hysterical propaganda. [And] they’ll begin to wonder why we don’t just legalize cannabis for everyone, create more jobs, raise more revenue, and use these established businesses as the distribution points.”