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Rhode Island legislative panel hears marijuana legalization bill


PROVIDENCE — The lead House sponsor of legislation to regulate marijuana in Rhode Island said Wednesday that legalizing the drug would take it “out of the back alleys,” but opponents said doing so would send the wrong message in a state with a high teen usage rate.

Some 200 people signed up to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the bill and a slate of other marijuana-related measures.

Rep. Edith Ajello’s bill would allow people 21 and older to have up to 1 ounce of marijuana and grow limited amounts of the plant. It would set up a system to regulate licensed marijuana retailers and cultivation and testing facilities. The product would be subject to wholesale and retail taxes.

“The goal here is to take marijuana out of the back alleys, away from the criminal element, and allow otherwise law-abiding citizens to buy marijuana ... and use it appropriately,” the Provident Democrat said.

She said marijuana is often easier for minors to get than alcohol and regulating its sale could help address teen use. She also said the state would benefit from the tens of millions of dollars in projected revenue from licensing fees and taxation.

Under the legislation, some of those funds would go to substance abuse prevention and treatment programs; some would go to medical marijuana research.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, have already legalized marijuana.

But opponents argued that legalization would send a dangerous message to children and could lead to public safety risks, including impaired driving. A 2012 report by the state health department found that 26 percent of high school students use marijuana and that those who do are nearly five times more likely to abuse prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Several law enforcement officials, including Richmond Police Chief Elwood Johnson, testified Wednesday that the medical marijuana program has led to a rash of home invasions targeting growers. Johnson testified against the bill in his capacity as head of the Rhode Island police chiefs association.

Col. Steven O’Donnell, the superintendent of Rhode Island State Police, has called for a special legislative committee to study the pros and cons of legalization.

Dr. David Lewis, founder of Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, said at an earlier news conference to promote Ajello’s bill that he shares concerns over marijuana use by youth because of questions over its effects on the adolescent brain. But he said that dealing with drug use through the criminal justice system hasn’t worked — or brought use down.

“It’s really been a bust, and it’s really been a failure, and we need a new approach,” he said.

A companion bill on the Senate side has not yet had a hearing.



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