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Not Quite Jamaica, Rhode Island Decriminalizes Marijuana

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Recreational marijuana smokers in Rhode Island can now enjoy that habit without fear of criminal penalties. The new RI law goes into effect today, changing the penalty for being an adult caught with small amounts marijuana from possible jail time and/or $500 fine to a $150 fine.

With Colorado and Washington leading the way last November, many states are having similar discussions in their legislatures. Rhode Island neighbor, Maryland, currently has a bill in the House for decriminalizing marijuana. The measure already passed in the Senate. Maine introduced a bill for legalization with 35 cosponsors last week.

If you like interactive maps as much as we do, check out this one on norml.org, a site working to reform marijuana laws. You can click tags by state to see what states have decriminalized, legalized, and allowed medical marijuana use.

On the one hand, it’s great that we’re making progress on getting rid of stupid pot laws. Lighter punishments and a lack of a criminal record is a nice step in the right direction (especially come C&F time). But on the other hand, decriminalization isn’t quite what it sounds like. Under the new Rhode Island law, your third offense within 18 months is a misdemeanor. The prosecution will get to prove one element of the crime, the two prior possessions, with a diminished burden of proof because those earlier offenses were civil matters without a reasonable doubt standard. To pile on, in civil matters you also don’t have the right to counsel.

We already hear Scott Greenfield asking “but what about the clients?” but come on, fewer criminal marijuana cases means a lot less work for lawyers. Especially young lawyers who need these minor offenses to learn the ropes, and who rely on court appointments while building a network and reputation.

Sure decriminalization reduces the workload for law enforcement and prosecutors, freeing them up to go after serious offenses. And it will reduce overcrowding in jails which is another cost savings to the state, not to mention the savings to the people who don’t have to go to jail. But won’t someone think of the lawyers? This is just kicking the legal employment scene when it’s already down.

In Ohio, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Oregon, possession is still a misdemeanor, but there’s no risk of incarceration, just a fine (ranging from $150 if you’re lucky and in Ohio, or $1000, if you’re not lucky and you’re in Oregon). Of course, for your second offense, incarceration and the need to hire an attorney come back on the table.

California, Mississippi, and Nebraska will let you go with a non-criminal infraction the first time, but it’s a jail-able misdemeanor the second. In Nevada and New York, you get until your third offense before you’re looking at jail time.

If this trend keeps up soon we’re going to see full legalization of marijuana and thousands of attorneys who are out of work and thus unable to afford their own marijuana.

We need to reverse this dangerous trend and go in a new direction: legalization of marijuana for middle-class white people. Keep it criminalized for poor minorities, to provide for a bulk of cases, and also criminalized for 16-25 year old white kids from upper-class families who will pay a lot to keep the charges off their records, to provide for quality cases. That keeps money flowing into the legal market, while protecting the lawyers themselves from prosecution.


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