During a news conference at the attorney general’s Customer Service Center in Cranston, Neronha said the change is needed due to the public health crisis posed by drug addition.
Neronha said his proposal would address two main goals: “One is to focus or refocus our law enforcement efforts where I believe they truly belong, on drug dealers and not addicts. And at the same time removing a significant barrier to those who are in recovery -- a felony arrest or conviction.”
The current penalty for simple drug possession of a drug other than marijuana is up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. Legislation backed by Neronha would make the possession of an ounce or less of any drug punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to $500.
Without directly referring to the war on drugs, Neronha said Rhode Island needs to emulate how other states have reduced penalties for simple drug possession.
“The world has changed,” he said. “We’ve got to be smarter in a whole host of ways, as we rethink our criminal justice system. Justice demands it. Our limited resources demand it. I want the office’s prosecutors focused on the cases that matter the most, whether they be civil or criminal cases -- cases that have the greatest impact on the people of this state.”
The attorney general was flanked by supporters of the proposal, including addiction specialists, RI Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, and Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements was among the people attending the news conference.
The proposal is Neronha’s first initiative since he took office last month.
The prosecutor said his previous role as Rhode Island’s U.S attorney taught him that “there is a substantial difference between those who traffic in drugs and those who simply possess them, fueled by addiction.”
Addressing the perception that his proposal might be soft on crime, Neronha said the weight of law enforcement should come down on drug traffickers and criminals who use guns.
“If you are a drug dealer, this legislation doesn’t protect you,” he said. “Just the opposite. It pivots our enforcement efforts directly on you. If you deal drugs in any amount, the law remains the same – you are a drug dealer and a felon and we will prosecute you.”
Neronha said his office will look at whether previous convictions for simple possession should be changed from felonies to misdemeanors. “I think that’s a very significant issue that we should seriously talk about,” he said.
Dr. Traci Green, associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University and Boston University, was among the people speaking at the news conference. She said incarcerating drug addicts creates a sequence of negative effects.
“With the highly potent and fast-acting drug fentanyl ever-present in the illicit drug supply, changes in people’s tolerance, disruption in their care, and relapse to drug use have never been more lethal,” Green said. “People who use drugs are better off in the community, where their condition can be treated, their health needs met, and their future choices in employment and housing, for instance, not limited.”
Green said 324 Rhode Islanders lost their lives due to opioids in 2017.
Neronha said his office is still working to attract a House sponsor for his proposal and that he expects it to be introduced in that chamber within a few days. House spokesman Larry Berman said the bill will be discussed in the Judiciary Committee after being introduced.