A new report compiled by Peter Phipps, a professor of journalism at the University of Rhode Island, and students in his Media and Law course found that Rhode Island police officers continue to devote resources to enforcing laws against marijuana even after possession of small amounts was decriminalized in 2013.
According to the study, which analyzed data provided by police departments representing about 85% of the state’s population, officers issued approximately 5,000 citations for marijuana possession from April 2013 through 2017. Each marijuana citation carries a minimum fine of $150.
Mr. Phipps commented, “Before this survey by journalism students at URI, no one knew how police in Rhode Island were enforcing the 2013 marijuana possession law. The class found stark differences from community to community. Among the state’s largest cities, Warwick and Pawtucket aggressively wrote marijuana citations, while Providence and Woonsocket police were more laissez faire. In 2015, for example, Warwick wrote 10 times as many citations as Providence. Overall, the class found police write most citations at traffic stops and cite males six times as frequently as females.”
Advocates for legalizing and regulating marijuana see the report as further reason for Rhode Island to follow Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and six other states around the country in ending marijuana prohibition.
Matthew Schweich, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said, “Despite the fact that three out of five Rhode Islanders think it’s time to legalize and regulate marijuana, taxpayers are still contributing significant resources to enforce prohibition. It makes no sense to spend money on a policy that punishes adults for using a substance that is far less harmful than alcohol.”
In the municipalities that provided data on race, the study also found significant disparities in the rates of citations issued to African Americans and whites. In those six cities and towns, the study found that 39% of citations were issued to African Americans, which make up only 8% of the total population in Rhode Island.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a study showing that African Americans were nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in Rhode Island from 2001 to 2010, despite evidence that African Americans and whites consume marijuana at roughly the same rate.
The URI report highlights significant differences in enforcement among various cities and towns in Rhode Island. Warwick issued the most citations by far — 934 from 2013 to 2017 — while Providence averaged only 33 citations per year from 2014 to 2016.