Rhode Island State Attorney General Peter Neronha announced new legislation that, if passed, would reclassify simple drug possession for personal use as a misdemeanor. At least twenty other states currently do this. In New England, only Rhode Island and New Hampshire treat simple possession as a felony.
“It is time we recognize – like many other states have – that simple drug possession is not felony conduct,” said Neronha. “This common sense reform will reduce the impact that drug addiction or a conviction can have on a Rhode Islander’s ability to get a job, find housing, and turn his or her life around. And, importantly, we need to re-focus our law enforcement resources on stopping violent crime and drug dealers, instead of over-criminalizing users and those suffering from addiction.”
Currently simple possession of under an ounce of a controlled substance other than marijuana is a felony under Rhode Island State Law, punishable with up to three years in prison and a $5000 fine. The new law would make simple possession a misdemeanor punishable with up to a year in prison and a maximum $500 fine.
The bill is being introduced in the State Senate by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick). On the House side, there is no sponsor as of yet.
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“Many times simple possession charges are the result of another underlying issues, such as substance abuse or mental health,” said McCaffrey. “Felony charges – let alone convictions – can send an individual’s life into a tailspin from which it is very difficult to recover. This reclassification legislation underscores our state’s commitment to criminal justice reform by prioritizing public health and more efficiently using public safety resources.”
“I am a woman in long term recovery,” said Michelle Harter, assistant addiction coordinator at the Burrillville Addiction Assistance Program. “For me that means that I haven’t had to take a drink or take an illicit, un-prescribed drug in a really long time. Almost 25 years… When i first got into recovery many years ago, it didn’t come with the stigma that it comes with today… I had a lot of second chances.
“There are a lot of people out there today that are suffering from the disease of addiction… Can we help them? Absolutely. How do we help them? We give them a second chance…”
“Addiction is a chronic disease that can be treated with medicine and compassion, making remission and recovery possible,” said Dr Traci Green, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Boston University and Brown University’s Alpert School of Medicine. ‘For far too long we have criminalized disease, and research tells us that is ineffective and makes matters far worse for the patient, their family and the community.”
“When the General Assembly changed the law and made it legal to possess a needle and syringe – I was a young trooper at the time – and I thought the state would turn into a lot of addicts,” said Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré. “And we were wrong… Law enforcement is trained to enforce the law and the effects of the law wasn’t our concern. We have to think smarter and deal with this issue as a public health condition.”
During the question and answer, Neronha said that reversing the convictions of those previously charged with simple possession as felonies, and converting them to misdemeanors, will be a longer conversation, one that will develop over time.
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