PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island is reducing the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and preparing to open its first medical pot dispensaries as states around the nation reassess their stance on the country's most popular illicit drug.
A new law decriminalizing the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana will take effect Monday. Instead of the threat of jail time or a $500 fine, those caught with marijuana will receive a $150 civil fine. The offender will have to forfeit the marijuana and appear in traffic court, but the incident won't appear on their criminal records.
Meanwhile, state health regulators could soon issue licenses to three dispensaries that will be legally authorized to sell marijuana to those in the state's medical marijuana program. The first of these pot pharmacies could open within weeks.
Advocates say the changes reflect changes in public perception of marijuana. A national Gallup poll two years ago showed support for legalization had reached 50 percent, up from 25 percent in the mid-'90s.
Fourteen states have rolled back penalties for possession, and last year, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the drug. A legalization bill has been introduced in Rhode Island's General Assembly but isn't expected to pass this year. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws.
"I don't think society sees it as the demon it was seen as previously," said state Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, who sponsored the decriminalization bill last year. He stops short of supporting legalization, however. "In the long term it's probably the right policy. But let's see how this turns out before we jump into that."
Critics worry decriminalization could lead to legalization and that changing the law send the wrong message to teens.
"Decriminalization says to some people that it's now legal," said Kristen Westmoreland, a physician who works for a substance abuse prevention program in Barrington. "None of us think that people should go to prison for a single marijuana offense. But we need to be careful when we change laws, because it gives the impression that marijuana is OK."
Under Rhode Island's new law, minors caught with pot must complete community service and a drug awareness program. Adults cited three times within 18 months face misdemeanor charges. It would remain a crime to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana.
As in other states, efforts to relax pot penalties in Rhode Island began with medical marijuana. Soon after approving the program, lawmakers heard from patients who said they couldn't find reliable sources of medicine. Some were robbed while looking for dealers.
George DesRoches began growing pot himself to treat his chronic pain and fibromyalgia, only to be held at gunpoint last year when men broke into his Providence home to steal his plants.
"People who have no options are going to get options at the compassion centers," DesRoches said. He'd like to see full legalization. "I think Rhode Island would like to be the first state on the East Coast to legalize, but this state has a habit of dragging its feet."
The Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center occupies a nondescript former postal service building a few blocks from the Statehouse. Patients must provide their medical marijuana authorization to gain entrance to the facility. To prevent theft, the reception window is bulletproof and the lobby wall contains a layer of Kevlar.
Inside, the main room is lined with glass cases that will soon hold jars of marijuana, separated into strains suited for conditions including nausea, anxiety, chronic pain and loss of appetite. Nearby are grow rooms with sophisticated lighting and temperature controls. The product cases and grow rooms are now empty — by law the dispensary can't possess marijuana until it receives its license. The first products will be bought from individuals already authorized to grow marijuana for patients.
"We want to be the industry standard," said Chris Reilly, a spokesman for Slater, which hopes to open within weeks. "This is a health care facility and we take our mission to help patients very seriously."
The other dispensaries are Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth.
Two years ago, Gov. Lincoln Chafee put the dispensary licenses on hold after federal authorities warned the facilities could face criminal charges. Last year Chafee and lawmakers created new restrictions on the amount of marijuana the facilities can possess in an effort to avoid a clash with the federal government.
While federal prosecution remains a possibility, advocates think rigorous regulations — and changing public opinion — may dissuade the federal government from intervening.
"I would hope we're not very high on the priority list," said Seth Bock, Greenleaf's chief executive. "The tide is changing."