The threat of federal drug raids will be a concern as long as there is a conflict between state and federal drug policy, Russell said. She noted proposals in Congress that would prevent federal intervention in states that have legalized marijuana.
“The people are far ahead of the politicians on this,” Russell said. “Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen the culture shift dramatically.”
Ajello introduced legislation to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island in 2011 and again this year, but the bills never went to a vote. Instead, lawmakers voted to replace criminal penalties for adults caught with a small amount of pot with something more like a parking ticket.
When the new law takes effect April 1, adults caught with an ounce or less of marijuana would face a $150 civil fine. Police would confiscate the marijuana, but the incident would not appear on a person’s criminal record. It will still be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, and minors caught with pot would have to complete a drug awareness program and community service.
The author of the decriminalization bill, state Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, said he thinks Rhode Island should see how decriminalization works before it potentially picks a bigger fight with federal authorities over legalization.
One opponent of legalization said legalization would send the wrong message to children and increase the number of people driving while high. But Rhode Island state Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, said he worries legalization may be inevitable.
“I’m hoping this goes nowhere,” he said. “But I think we’re getting closer and closer to doing this.”