By Hillary Davis, Policy Associate

When the State of Rhode Island decriminalized small amounts of marijuana just three years ago, lawmakers agreed that locking people up for marijuana – especially youth – was failed drug policy. So why now are legislators considering putting juveniles back in front of judges?

Under the state’s decriminalization law, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana results in a ticket, and is addressed by the Traffic Tribunal. (Three consecutive arrests for marijuana do trigger misdemeanor criminal penalties, and possession of more than an ounce, driving under the influence, selling marijuana, and other crimes remain illegal.) Juveniles who are caught with marijuana have their parents notified, and are required to complete drug and alcohol education and perform community service. All this was intended to keep low-level marijuana users out of jail, in school, and with their families. Yet, legislation introduced this year at the behest of the Attorney General’s office may undo all that by requiring that kids arrested for non-criminal amounts of marijuana appear before the Family Court, not the Traffic Tribunal.

So, what’s the big deal? Marijuana is still decriminalized; it’s just a different venue, right? Not so fast.

Family Court judges have something the Traffic Tribunal doesn’t: the ability to put juveniles in the Training School. A second provision in the bill, requiring mandatory substance abuse assessment and allowing the Family Court to order substance abuse treatment, all but guarantees that will happen.

Not all youth who use marijuana are suffering from a drug addiction, but the proposed legislation treats all youth that way from the first offense. At a judge’s discretion, this legislation would allow youth to be ordered into drug treatment. Any youth who cannot complete the substance abuse assessment for any reason, who is not suffering from drug addiction, or who is not yet ready for treatment will find themselves back before the judge, where they can be sent to the Training School for behavior which is not criminal under the law.

As we’ve seen time and time again, once a child is sent to the Training School they are put in a cycle from which it can be very difficult to escape – their time at the Training School and the further burdens placed upon them are at the discretion of the court. Instead of time spent in school or at home working with their parents to address their drug use, these youth will be alone, incarcerated, with youth much harder and involved in more criminal activities than they are.

Rhode Island has a drug problem, and three years ago the state promised to stop “ruin[ing] their lives permanently,” or “incarcerating any more people for marijuana possession.” 

Yet, here we are again. No child’s future should be risked by a single joint. The ACLU is working to keep our youth out of the Training School, and we hope the General Assembly will as well.