The War on Drugs


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


The War on Drugs

For more than 45 years, the War on Drugs has ballooned the U.S. prison population, cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year, eroded the right to privacy, exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and done little to nothing to reduce the prevalence of drugs in the country. In Rhode Island, the General Assembly regularly passes contradictory and confounding legislation related to drug use. 

In this section:

Conflicting Priorities

As experts worldwide recognize drug addiction to be a matter of public health, Rhode Island lawmakers continue to bounce between approaches that help and approaches that punish drug users. In just the last few years:

  • The use of medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2006, and compassion centers were approved in 2009. Since then, the General Assembly has regularly considered laws to erode the protections of the medical marijuana act. These have included: limits on the amount of marijuana a patient can grow and allowances for landlords to discriminate against medical marijuana users (passed in 2014), increased drug testing for state workers, an onerous tax and ban on sharing excess medication (amended version passed in 2016), and legislation requiring the disclosure of medical marijuana grows - illegal under federal law - in real estate transactions (passed but vetoed in 2018).
  • Rhode Island first adopted the Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act in 2012, protecting people from prosecution for some drug crimes when they call 911 in the case of an overdose. The General Assembly allowed the law to expire in 2015, leaving drug-addicted Rhode Islanders vulnerable until the law was reauthorized the following January. In 2018, the General Assembly considered a number of bills undermining the Good Samaritan law, including one - which did not pass - allowing for the involuntary commitment of some drug users by medical personnel.
  • The General Assembly recognized that criminal prosecution and potential jail time are inappropriate and failing responses to marijuana use, and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012. In 2016, however, the General Assembly put juveniles back in danger of facing jail time for marijuana use by requiring that juvenile  possession of marijuana be handled by Family Court judges, not the Traffic Tribunal as adult marijuana users are.
  • Despite the promise of the decriminalization law, Rhode Island continues to levy heavy criminal penalties against some drug users. In 2018, this included imposing potential life sentences against anyone who shares drugs with another, if the consumption of that drug results in a fatal overdose.
  • Despite overwhelming support for the legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana - and the passage of similar laws throughout New England - the Rhode Island General Assembly has not yet taken the step to approve such legislation.

Mass Incarceration

The United States incarcerates a greater portion of its population than any other country in the world. Rhode Island is not exempt from this mass incarceration. In 2008, the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) was so overcrowded the General Assembly had to make immediate changes to prevent the mandatory release of some prisoners. In 2017, nearly 13,000 Rhode Islanders were incarcerated for a period of time. Nearly 16% of incarcerated men and 18% of incarcerated women were held on drug charges only, with innumerable more held because of other drug-related crimes.

Criminal convictions, especially felonies, carry penalties that follow ex-offenders long after they leave the ACI. Rhode Island has the second-highest probation rate in the country, and average probation and parole lengths that far exceed the average nationwide length. One out of every 49 adults in Rhode Island is on probation or parole, and half of all people who return to prison do so for a probation violation. Although gainful employment is known to be a critical element in preventing recidivism, Rhode Island continues to bar ex-offenders from meaningful employment by allowing new burdensome criminal background check requirements impacting people with drug convictions on nearly every imaginable profession.

Racial Disparities

The War on Drugs does not impact all communities equally; communities of color bear an outsized burden, with enormous consequences. Thirteen out of every 100 black adults in Rhode Island are in prison or on probation.

In 2013 the ACLU released a report finding that black Rhode Islanders were arrested for marijuana possession at 2.6 times the rate of whites in 2010, and were seven times more likely to be arrested for this offense in the counties with the smallest minority populations. The report also showed that racially disparate arrest rates for marijuana possession existed in Rhode Island throughout the ten-year period studied (2001-2010). These major disparities exist even though national studies show that blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly similar rates.

Impacts on Non-Users


The General Assembly has passed or considered a number of laws in recent years, in the name of the War on Drugs and the opioid overdose crisis, that erode the privacy rights of all Rhode Islanders. Many of the technological privacy battles the ACLU fights on a regular basis arround cell phone privacy, drones, automated license plate readers, and other policing tools can be traced directly to the War on Drugs. In recent years, the focus has turned to your medical records; this has included a bill allowing law enforcement access, without a warrant, to your prescription drug records. (Passed in 2017, just four years after the warrant requirement was put in place.)

Civil Forfeiture

Police agencies can confiscate the money and property of a person suspected of having committed certain offenses, whether or not that person is ever convicted or even charged. Those belongings then become the property of law enforcement, and can be kept or sold with the proceeds going to those agencies. The burden is on the innocent property owner to get the money or property back by proving it was not unlawfully earned. This process, known as civil asset forfeiture, not only undermines the presumption of innocence – where the state has to prove someone has engaged in criminal activity – but also gives police an incentive to care as much about profit as about public safety. In 2011, Rhode Island expressly sanctioned the National Guard receiving a portion of the funds garnered from counterdrug operations.