General Assembly passes bill to change possession of certain drugs from felony to misdemeanor
STATE HOUSE — The General Assembly today passed legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey and Rep. Scott A. Slater that would downgrade possession of certain controlled substances from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The legislation (2012-S 0188A, 2021-H 6083A), which is supported by Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, would amend the Uniform Controlled Substances Act and reclassify simple possession of 10 grams or less of certain controlled substances as a misdemeanor punishable as a two-year misdemeanor rather than a felony.
“People suffering from addiction need treatment, not prison,” said Senator McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick). “As we better understand addiction and rehabilitation, we must modernize draconian sentencing laws to more effectively address substance use disorders. This legislation shifts the paradigm for combatting addiction away from crime and punishment and towards treatment. Branding individuals as felons because of an addition only creates additional barriers to their successful recovery.”
“Individuals with substance abuse disorders are not hardened criminals or felons who should be locked away due to their disease. This bill will help those with personal drug problems get the treatment they need in order to overcome their addictions and once again become productive members of society. Compassion, care and understanding are what these people need, not penal confinement or the lifelong stigma of being a felon,” said Representative Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence).
By defelonizing certain levels of drug use and possession, the hope is that people will be able to seek addiction treatment if they need it rather than ending up in a cycle of drug use and arrests.
Currently, it is difficult for people with felonies on their record to find work or a place to live. The bill may reduce this issue for people trying to get back on track by decreasing their likelihood of committing a felony. Supporters also cite success with defelonizing drugs in states like California and Utah.
“I believe that possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use is much more of a public health issue than a law enforcement one,” said Attorney General Neronha. “Over-criminalizing such conduct by treating it as a felony, as the law does today, rather than as a misdemeanor, as this legislation proposes, diverts our law enforcement focus away from where it plainly belongs: on the drug traffickers who profit in dealing misery to others and who often engage in the violence that regularly comes with drug dealing. And this is no hypothetical – this Office’s narcotics prosecutors are handling over 200 cases each. I do not believe that simple drug possession is felony conduct. Those who simply possess drugs – who are addicted and cannot escape the cycle of addiction – face barriers to employment, housing, and other opportunities to turn their lives around because such conduct is presently classified as felony. This common-sense reform would reduce those barriers, properly position possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use where it belongs on the spectrum of criminal threats we face, and allow us to focus our law enforcement resources on the drug traffickers who warrant it.”
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for consideration.
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