Photo via iStock/ Zolnierek
As of this week, any Rhode Island resident that has been convicted of low-level cannabis possession can have their criminal records cleared. Any individual who has been arrested for possessing an ounce or less of weed is now allowed to petition the court to have such “crimes” expunged from their rap sheets. Courts will grant the service at no cost, provided that the petitioner has already completed the conditions of their original sentence, and paid all related fines and court fees.
The new legislation was proposed by state legislators Sen. Harold Metts and Rep. Scott Slater in February, and signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo this week. Ocean State lawmakers decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2013, and “the new law means many Rhode Islanders will not be haunted needlessly by records for a decriminalized act,” says a press release from the Rhode Island General Assembly. Even a misdemeanor possession charge on one's criminal record can create obstacles that block employment, educational, and housing opportunities.
“We must address the punitive laws on our books that don’t contribute to reducing crime and instead hold people back from gaining employment, taking care of themselves and their families and contributing to society,” Slater said in a statement. “We did that when we decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and allowing those who were already convicted of it to expunge that record is a way to correct the lingering negative effects.”
“As a state, we have slowly been moving toward recognizing that more than punishment, compassion, reconciliation and prevention will better serve not only the individual, but society as a whole,” Metts added. “The effects of harsh punishment and criminal records for minor drug offenses in particular have been poverty, lack of financial security and marginalization. This problem very disproportionally affects people of color and those who were already poor. If an act has been decriminalized since a person was charged and paid their price for it, that person shouldn’t have to keep paying the price in the form of being denied jobs and other opportunities because of their criminal record.”
Rhode Island is not alone in passing legislation to help right the wrongs of cannabis prohibition. Proposition 64, the voter-approved measure which legalized recreational cannabis in California, also allows residents of the state to apply to have cannabis-related records expunged. Noting the time and money involved in the process, several cities and counties in the state have even begun automatically identifying and clearing relevant convictions for offenders. Several other states, like Washington, Vermont, Oregon, Colorado, and New Jersey have all passed or proposed legislation to allow former pot offenders to clear their records.
Even though nearby Massachusetts is working to launch a regulated cannabis market this summer, legal weed has been a hard sell for Rhode Island. In 2017, state lawmakers approved the creation of a joint legislative commission to study the ramifications of full adult-use legalization. Later that year, Rep. Slater proposed a bill with state Sen. Joshua Miller that would create a form of “incremental legalization.” This creative bill would have legalized only low-level possession at first, while establishing a regulatory panel to consider implementing a retail market. Unfortunately that bill didn’t pass, but as legalization spreads throughout the Northeast, it becomes more and more likely that Rhode Island will eventually join in.