Despite cannabis decriminalization throughout the state in 2013, Rhode Island police issued about 5,000 citations for cannabis possession through 2017, according to a University of Rhode Island study. The study, conducted by journalism Professor Peter Phipps and students in his Media and Law course, analyzed police department data representing about 85 percent of the state’s population.

Each cannabis citation carries a minimum fine of $150.

“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.” – Phipps in a statement

The study also found that African-Americans were disproportionately cited for cannabis possession, comprising 39 percent of all citations, despite only comprising just 8 percent of the state’s population. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found that cannabis use rates among Blacks and Whites are about the same. That report also indicated that between 2001 and 2010, African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested in Rhode Island for cannabis possession.

The good news is: Cannabis law enforcement has dropped 50 percent since statewide decriminalization and several municipalities have seen citations plummet. Including:

  • Bristol, which had 84 citations in 2015 and just 19 in the fall of last year.
  • Cranston, where police arrested 132 for cannabis possession in 2012 but have written just 188 citations since then.
  • Cumberland, which arrested 46 for cannabis possession in 2012 and has written just 33 citations since.
  • Narragansett, where 99 citations were issued in 2015 and 2016 but only 9 in 2017.
  • Tiverton, which made 23 cannabis arrests in 2012. From 2013 to 2017 the total is less than 23.

The bad news is: Police are still issuing citations at all and some municipalities are still issuing them in bunches. Including:

  • East Greenwich, which issued just 12 citations from 2014 to 2016 but issued 19 last year.
  • Pawtucket, which issues between 100 and 150 citations per year
  • Warwick, which has issued 934 possession citations since decriminalization took effect.
  • Westerly, which has issued 352 citations since the reforms took effect.

Rhode Island is often in the discussion of the next state to legalize cannabis for adults. The legislature has made overtures to create a legalization committee and Gov. Gina Raimondo has indicated she supports legalization but said last March she was “not in a rush” due to public safety and regulatory concerns.

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