The Rhode Island House and Senate are both poised to approve legislation tomorrow that would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
The long-term prospects of the legislation always seemed good. The House and Senate bills enjoy broad support in their respective chambers. And a January poll commissioned by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project showed 65 percent of Rhode Island voters backing the measures.
But any bill with a whiff of controversy - pun intended - faces an uphill climb in an election year. And as I reported in mid-April, advocates feared the relatively conservative chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Michael McCaffrey, would prove a significant obstacle to the bill.
But a sustained lobbying effort focused on McCaffrey and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed appears to have paid off. McCaffrey added a three-strikes provision - three violations within an 18-month period results in a criminal misdemeanor - and his committee approved the measure last week. The House Judiciary Committee signed off on the same day, suggesting that any concerns Speaker of the House Gordon Fox had about political repercussions for rank-and-file members who will vote for the bill on the House floor had dissipated.
If Governor Chafee signs the bill - and advocates believe he is sympathetic to the cause - Rhode Island would join its neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut in decriminalizing. The chief beneficiaries: those who would lose out on job or public housing opportunities - what are known as "collateral sanctions" - because of misdemeanor possession convictions.