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Getting High on RI's Marijuana Debate

Should Rhode Island legalize weed?

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Better schools? Expanded Medicaid? Property tax relief? Just imagine the things Rhode Island could do with an extra $100 million dollars a year – the amount Colorado stands to make in taxes from newly-legal marijuana sales, according to budget projections released last month.

It’s easy to see why lawmakers might jump at that revenue, but the East Side’s State Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) says for her, it’s about more than the money. She’s sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana because, she says, she wants to fix a broken system. “I think that prohibition hasn’t worked,” Ajello says, contending that banning marijuana outright “puts otherwise law-abiding citizens in contact with the criminal element.”

If marijuana is, as it’s so often called, a “gateway drug” to harder and more addictive substance use, Ajello thinks it’s precisely because of that “criminal element” – because sales are forced underground, right alongside the illegal trade in prescription pills, cocaine and heroin. In that environment, she says, it’s too easy to try a different drug and get hooked.

“’Hey, you’re buying marijuana today,’” Ajello says, imagining a dealer’s sales pitch. “’Tomorrow would you like to buy some heroin?’ There’s the gateway.” She argues that jump wouldn’t happen in state-sanctioned stores selling only weed.

Ajello also worries about kids who start smoking at too young an age, when studies show marijuana can hamper their brain development. “The criminal element has no compunctions about selling to minors,” she says. Under the bill Ajello has co-sponsored with Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston), prospective buyers would have to show identification to prove their age, just like buying alcohol or tobacco products.

Beyond requiring ID, Ajello aims to help kids make smarter choices about drugs and alcohol by better funding substance abuse education, preven- tion and treatment. The bill calls for 40% of the revenue from marijuana sales to go toward those programs, which Ajello says “we are short-funding” now.

But the problems surrounding weed can’t be solved quite so simply, according to Nancy DeNuccio, chair of the Ocean State Prevention Alliance (OSPA) and co-chair of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Marijuana Working Group. OSPA and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin oppose legalization.

DeNuccio doesn’t buy that legalized weed will stop illegal sales or discourage kids from getting high. She calls the idea of removing the black market with legalization a “foolish notion.” She points to reports that Colorado’s illicit trade is still thriving, as well as Rhode Island’s own black market for cigarettes. Close to 40% of cigarettes consumed in Rhode Island in 2011 were smuggled in, the fifth-highest smuggling rate in the nation, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

As for making it harder for minors to get marijuana, DeNuccio notes that the age limits on alcohol don’t keep kids from drinking. On average, nearly 34% of Rhode Islanders aged 12-20 reported drinking in the past month in 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). More than 11% of underage drinkers said they bought the booze themselves.

DeNuccio wants to spread statistics like that, both to the public and to state legislators, in hopes the information will quash the effort to legalize marijuana. It’s worked in the past: this bill is the fourth to propose legalization in as many years, and so far none have made it out of committee.

But DeNuccio and Ajello agree the climate is changing. On the heels of legalization in Colorado and Washington and decriminalization in Rhode Island and many other states, and with that juicy tax revenue to consider, DeNuccio says there seems to be more “political will” in favor of legal marijuana. She and others in the OSPA, which includes health professionals and law enforcement officials, plan to “provide testimony to combat all of that” political will and momentum. “I’m gonna be doing everything in my power to provide enough information to the general public and legislators that they’ll make an informed decision on this,” DeNuccio says.

Ajello, meanwhile, says support is building in the state House of Representatives. Ajello says 29 members have signed her bill, more than in previous years, and fewer than ever told her they oppose legalization outright. “More said, ‘I want to wait and see,’” she explains, “or ‘I represent a conservative district. I’ll probably vote for it but I don’t want to put my name on it.’”

Ajello admits that lawmakers’ reluctance to show outright support will probably keep her bill from passing this year. It’s an election year, she notes, and politicians hesitate to back controversial policies when it could cost them votes. Between election-year cold feet and the campaign against it, “I’m not getting the feeling it’s going to pass this year,” DeNuccio says.

But Ajello remains optimistic. “I think ultimately, it will [pass],” she says. “If not this year, there’s a very good chance next year.”