Marijuana policy reform is a hot topic these days in Rhode Island and across the country. Over the last three years, we’ve been discussing the issue with constituents, colleagues, opinion leaders and activists on both sides of the issue. Our conversations have led us to two points of agreement:
• Our current marijuana policy has failed. For instance, studies indicate an increase in youth marijuana use and that it is easy for them to get it.
• Most Rhode Islanders are ready for change.
A survey conducted last month by Public Policy Polling reinforced our conclusions, finding that a solid majority of Rhode Island voters support taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, allowing adults over the age of 21 to use it. These results are right in line with several national polls that indicate a rapidly growing majority of Americans agree it is time to make marijuana legal.
Marijuana prohibition has been a failure of tragic proportions. It has failed to prevent use or abuse. It has been a distraction for law enforcement officials who should be focusing elsewhere. Marijuana prohibition has resulted in criminal records for thousands of otherwise law-abiding adults and limited the ability of too many of our young people to access financial aid for higher education. Insidiously, this prohibition has forced marijuana sales into an underground market where more dangerous products such as heroin and cocaine are also offered. Ironically, prohibition ensures that the state has no control over the product. Criminals fight over the profits and our state and municipalities forego millions of dollars of tax revenue.
It is for these reasons that we support regulating and taxing marijuana as we regulate and tax alcohol, and approaching marijuana as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice problem. We can mandate that marijuana be properly tested and labeled so that consumers know what they are getting. We can restrict sales to minors and ensure that those who sell marijuana are asking for proof of age. We can collect tens of millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue and foster the creation of new businesses and jobs in an emerging industry.
Importantly, we can redirect our drug prevention and treatment resources toward addressing the abuse of more harmful drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and prescription narcotics. We can urge teens to stay away from marijuana until their brains are fully developed.
Those who wish to maintain our current prohibition laws often claim marijuana is a gateway drug that will inevitably lead to the use of other drugs, but studies suggest otherwise. According to a 1999 study commissioned by the White House and performed by the Institute of Medicine, marijuana does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.
Marijuana’s illegal status creates the gateway. By forcing marijuana consumers into the underground market, we dramatically increase the possibility that they will be exposed to more dangerous substances. Separating marijuana from the illicit drug markets while reducing exposure to more addictive and dangerous substances cannot help but reduce any gateway effect associated with marijuana use. Customers buying a bottle of wine for dinner are not, after all, offered heroin.
Regulating marijuana will take the product out of the hands of criminal enterprises and place it behind counters of legitimate businesses that safely and responsibly sell marijuana – and marijuana only – to adults 21 and older.
Under marijuana prohibition, illicit profits are used to fund violent gangs, illegal gun markets, human trafficking, and other violent trades. Regulating marijuana will allow us to redirect marijuana sales revenue away from the violent criminal market and toward a meaningful solution. A large portion of tax revenue derived from wholesale transactions will fund programs preventing and treating the abuse of alcohol and other substances. According to federal government data, nearly 2.5 percent of Rhode Islanders needed treatment for hard drugs in 2012 but did not receive it. The recent spike in drug overdose deaths is a stark reminder of the need for treatment and education.
Most people recognize that marijuana prohibition’s days are numbered. The question is now when should we end it, not should we. Like most Rhode Islanders, we believe now is the time and regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol is the answer.
Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, are the sponsors of legislation to regulate and tax marijuana in Rhode Island.