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Rhode Island’s Pot Prohibitionists

With marijuana legalization efforts finding success in scattered parts of the United States, Rhode Island stands as a potential trailblazer.

A new attempt at legalization put forth by its state legislature looms as a modest victory in 2015 for proponents of liberty and sane drug policy. Modest, because unfortunately the state would still maintain a large regulatory footprint in any legalization scheme, cartelizing marijuana’s production and sale.

Passage of such a bill would make Rhode Island the first state to legalize by legislative act. So far, legalization has been successful only through state ballot initiatives. This is unsurprising, as politicians are always behind the curve on matters of public opinion, cultural and otherwise. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming into modernity, fighting to maintain their heavy-handed control over their subjects, even on matters as personal as what people choose to put into their own bodies.

Progress isn’t guaranteed in Rhode Island thanks to the state’s political gatekeepers. The Rhode Island legislature has long been dominated by an entrenched, anti-choice, Democratic machine whose puritanical impulse on the marijuana issue looks likely only to delay the inevitable. Rhode Island’s newly elected governor, Democrat Gina Raimondo, indicated that while she’s open to the idea of legalization, she’ll take a “wait and see” approach (political-speak for “I’ll wait until overwhelming political pressure forces me to act”). Other prominent Rhode Island politicos have taken a similar cowardly approach.

Rhode Island State Senator Louis DiPalma bragged he couldn’t wait to say no. As with many other so-called progressives, DiPalma believes marijuana is a “public safety issue,” with use of the plant destined to lead youngsters down the path to uncontrollable addiction. As a result, people like DiPalma are content to remain modern day prohibitionists. Thankfully they are a dying breed.

It’s a funny position for DiPalma to take considering he once told Rhode Island’s Go Local Prov that “[i]t’s critically important to put a ‘face’ on each and every issue. Being able to put a ‘face’ on the issue permits a deeper understanding.” One wonders if DiPalma has ever tried to put a face on the marijuana issue. He’d be hard pressed to find one Rhode Islander whose drug addiction can be attributed to their “gateway” marijuana experiences, except possibly disgraced Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose personal crusade against pot sounds like something out of Reefer Madness.

On the contrary, DiPalma and others would be well advised to listen to the stories of Rhode Islanders whose trouble with the law resulting from DiPalma’s proud marijuana prohibition has altered their lives in irreparably harmful ways. Perhaps he could pay a visit to the state’s Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) in Cranston, where some are locked in cages as a result of their “public safety” violations that were harmful to no one.

As the ACLU has pointed out, black Rhode Islanders are 2.6 times more likely to have been arrested on marijuana charges, making this as much about racial justice as it is about personal freedom. Yes, the state has decriminalized possession of under an ounce. But such weak measures don’t help those who see selling drugs as their only viable means of economic opportunity. Only a complete tear-down of the Drug War from the ground up will provide real relief from the state’s authoritarian regime that’s proven successful only for politicians and police departments, who’ve found prohibition to be a bountiful supplement to their budgets.

A truly sane drug policy would entail no “policy” at all. It would omit the state entirely, with people free to purchase, consume, cultivate, sell and distribute as they see fit.

Chad Nelson is a contributing author at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org). He’s an attorney based out of Providence, Rhode Island and a Fellow at C4SS. He considers himself one of the world’s biggest Pearl Jam fans despite their blind obedience to the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @cnels43.

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Chad Nelson is senior editor at the Center for a Stateless Society. He’s an attorney based out of Providence, Rhode Island and a Fellow at C4SS. He considers himself one of the world’s biggest Pearl Jam fans despite their blind obedience to the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @cnels43.

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