Rhode Island Considers the Costs of Marijuana Criminalization

As a followup to our previous post on Rhode Island’s attempts to legalize and tax marijuana, the Providence Journal is reporting on the legislative commission’s attempts to understand the true “cost” of the criminalization of marijuana.

Decriminalizing marijuana might save the state millions of dollars in prosecution and prison costs, or it could have the opposite effect and make a drug that is currently illegal in Rhode Island — and most of the United States — much more readily available to anyone within the state’s borders, including teenagers.

One advocate for decriminalization tried to convince the panel the state could save upwards of $2.2 million annually in prison costs alone by decriminalizing the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. The head of the state prison system acknowledged a savings, but a tenth as much.

Taking a contrary view, Matthew S. Dawson, deputy chief of the criminal division within the attorney general’s office, said there would be “zero savings,” because state prosecutors would be forced to litigate scores of cases they now plead down to simple possession of marijuana.


Nick Horton, who is both a member of the Senate commission and outspoken advocate of decriminalization, came armed with quotes and numbers from that last four decades of debate to suggest “marijuana is safer than alcohol … no demonstrated association with violent behavior … no evidence of any long-term health effects.”

At any given time, he argued, Rhode Island had between 57 and 85 people in jail for a marijuana-related crime in 2008 which, at a cost of $33,000 for each “bed,” cost the state $2.2 million.

A policy researcher for OpenDoors, an organization formerly known as the Family Life Center that works with released prisoners, Horton attributed the initial criminalization of marijuana in 1937 to “false information and racism,” including the belief that “marijuana is an addictive drug, which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death.”

He said: “Black and Hispanic people are arrested for marijuana possession 1.6 times as frequently as whites … people of color are incarcerated 8 times more frequently than whites.”

For another take, one local blogger took exception to both the reporting on this story and also the numbers used by law enforcement.


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