A push to legalize marijuana – once again – has returned to the Statehouse. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses what has become a perennial issue.
Except for speeding on Rhode Island’s roads, is there a law more frequently scoffed at by citizens than the ban on recreational use of marijuana?
As the General Assembly again tackles the prickly issue of legalizing marijuana, it is well beyond the time for rigorous study of a policy that too often devolves into cliché and anecdotal opinion.
For starters, let’s acknowledge that the 40-year War on Drugs that has resulted in thousands of Rhode Islanders and millions of Americans serving prison time for smoking or ingesting cannabis has been an abject failure.
As was the case with alcohol prohibition in the early years of the 20th Century, marijuana use has been impossible to banish from our society. Rhode Islanders roundly winked at the ban on alcohol; prohibition turned off the legal spigot, but booze flowed as if our state was the stage for one of Jay Gatsby’s parties, where the champagne was served in glasses larger than finger bowls.
With 400 miles of difficult to patrol coastline, the Ocean State was a theme park for alcohol smugglers. Illegal consumption of alcohol knew no economic or social borders; the callused hands of Woonsocket factory workers joined the bejeweled fingers of Newport swells in hoisting glasses.
The alcohol prohibition experiment didn’t last, of course. It failed on many fronts, not the least of which was organized crime and the widespread public and political corruption bred by banning alcohol. As the Jazz Age slouched into the Depression, legal alcohol was back as a regulated substance taxed by government.
Today’s pot ban has done much the same, putting the nation in thrall to murderous Mexican drug cartels, wasting police time and taxpayer money chasing and prosecuting penny-ante crime and fostering disrespect for the law.
Other states are grappling with marijuana prohibition, most notably Colorado, which has legalized recreational use through a voter referendum. The Colorado experience was debated vigorously at a recent Rhode Island Statehouse hearing, with skeptics and such enforcement leaders as Attorney General Peter Kilmartin asserting the move has caused headaches for police and led to more hospital emergency room visits for cannabis intoxication.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was once a staunch opponent of legalization. Yet he has since softened his anti-pot position. "If you look back, it has turned out not to be as vexing as some of the people like myself anticipated."
Hickenlooper says now that his state is focused on building a regulatory system and "making sure we keep it out of the hands of kids and making sure we keep our roads safe."
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cultural issues tend to bring out sky-is-falling rhetoric that doesn’t match reality. Remember the outcry just a couple of years ago when Rhode Island legalized gay marriage? Except for getting more wedding invitations, has same-sex marriage changed anything much in the every day lives of the vast majority of our citizens?
Kilmartin and other law-enforcement officials have some valid concerns. As Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer told a House Judiciary Committee hearing, there is no simple way of detecting the marijuana intoxication level of an impaired driver. This is a serious issue, especially in light of the carnage that drunk drivers already cause on our roads. Yet as more states legalize pot, there is likely a technology that could be developed, like the alcohol breathalyzer test, that would allow police and the health care community to establish criteria for unsafe pot levels.
Rhode Island has made progress in recent years by decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and allowing medical use of the weed. A Kilmartin spokeswoman says that no inmate is currently serving time at the Adult Correctional Institutions for simple marijuana possession.
The state speaks with a forked tongue on pot. Government says medical use is ok and that we don’t care much if you are lighting up a joint in the privacy of your home. Yet we don’t allow the regulated sale and use.
The state also has a serious interest in keeping pot out of the hands of teen-agers, which the current regime does nothing to prevent. Sen. Josh Miller, of Cranston, is a longtime advocate of legal pot. He says the present system is a failure because illegal dealers prey on the young by selling them not only weed but much more dangerous drugs, such as opioids and cocaine.
Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nick Mattiello have both backed a go-slow policy on legalizing and regulating marijuana. This may well turn out to be short-sighted, especially if legal pot is approved by Massachusetts voters, who are likely to face such a ballot question next year. Legalization in Massachusetts would be the first New England domino to drop and it would inevitably lead to other states cashing in on regulating and taxing pot.
For all these reasons, Rhode Island lawmakers and Raimondo ought to undertake a serious study of marijuana legalization. The status quo isn’t working, so let’s look at reasonable alternatives before our New England neighbors beat us to it.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org