RI State Report: Marijuana Decriminalization & Safer Schools

Saturday, April 06, 2013


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Not surprisingly, this week’s State Report centers on the long-awaited enactment of Rhode Island’s marijuana decriminalization law. Also on the docket this week is legislation looking to make the state’s quasi-public agencies accountable to taxpayers, as well as a series of bills aiming to increase school security.

We’ll also examine the House’s passage of a bill that would allow voters who are standing in line when polls close to cast their ballots. And lastly this week, we’ll take a look at a newly released report on the state of Rhode Island’s homeless population, which is discouraging to say the least.

Marijuana decimalization goes into effect

No it wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke, Rhode Island’s marijuana decriminalization law finally went into affect on Monday, making it the 15th state in the country to enact such legislation. Signed into law last year by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the newly enacted law decriminalizes less than ounce of marijuana, meaning that individuals holding onto less than an ounce of the drug will receive a $150 fine rather than face a misdemeanor charge.

The news marks the latest move by the state to regulate the use of marijuana. In 2006, the General Assembly passed a law establishing a state medical-marijuana program, which allows patients to grow their own marijuana or get it from state-certified caregivers or growers.

In 2009, the state approved the formation of three compassion centers, all of which have faced various legal obstacles. On Thursday, the Rhode Island Department of Health authorized the certification of the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, making it one step closer to opening its doors to the state’s 5,048 patients and 3,525 caregivers.

Fourteen states including neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut have already decriminalized marijuana. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the drug.

Sheehan bill looks to increase accountability for quasi-public agencies

On Monday, legislation was introduced in the Senate that would make the state’s quasi-public agencies, which are publically owned entities, fully accountable to the people of Rhode Island.
According to Sheehan, Rhode Island’s quasi-public agencies, including the RI Airport Corporation, RI Resource Recovery Corporation, RIPTA and the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority are valuable entities, but lack accountability and transparency.

“These agencies need to be more transparent, not less because while they operate independently, they would not exist but for their relationship with state government,” said Sheehan. “Like all other state departments, they need to demonstrate a commitment to protecting the interests of Rhode Island taxpayers by achieving the highest standards of open, effective and ethical operations.”

The bill, titled “The Quasi-Public Corporations Accountability and Transparency Act,” would establish specific transparency guidelines, require access to executive sessions and authorize performance audits every three years, starting this year. The bill lists 15 agencies and several subsidiaries.

The legislation “is a comprehensive set of regulations and guidelines that will apply to every quasi-public agency,” according to Sheehan. “Enactment of this bill will ensure that all of these agencies abide by the same set of standards for ethics and transparency and will guarantee that the work they are doing on the public’s behalf is open and accessible by the public.”

State law does not provide a clear definition of what constitutes quasi-public agencies. Some agencies currently have the power to issue bonds, create subsidiaries and to exercise eminent domain.

Chafee, lawmakers pitch school security ideas

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Gov. Lincoln Chafee and several state lawmakers announced a plan on Wednesday designed to increase school security and safety drills.

The package of legislation would require the state’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education annually certify that all school safety plans and school emergency response plans are reviewed and updated as needed; require school and local public officials to conduct routine school safety and monthly evacuation or lockdown drills; and require that state fire drill laws be aligned with national standards.

“These bills ensure that schools are doing all they can to provide for the safety of the children entrusted to their care. I am grateful to Chairwoman Gallo and the members of the Education Committee, as well as Chairman McNamara, for their focus on the important issue of school safety," said said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed. "Working together with Governor Chafee’s administration, they took a collaborative approach in developing this strong legislation.”

Lawmakers are also finalizing the details on gun control legislation, which should be unveiled next week, according to Chafee.

House passes bill allowing voting by all in line when polls close

All voters who are standing in line when polls close will now be allowed to cast their ballots, thanks to legislation passed by the House on Tuesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Edith H. Ajello, the bill eliminates wording in current law that limits the protection of individuals waiting in line to vote when polls close at 8 p.m. Under current law, if the line stretches outside of the building, anyone outdoors can be turned away at 8 p.m.

“Whether a line is indoors or outdoors isn’t relevant to whether the people in it should be allowed to vote. Wherever the line reaches at 8 p.m., the intention of the people in it is the same. There doesn’t need to be an arbitrary place after which the line doesn’t count,” said Ajello. “If voters arrived on time and are faced with a line, if they’re willing to stand in it to do their civic duty, they shouldn’t be turned away.”

Ajello introduced the bill in response to November’s Election Day fiasco, which saw long lines at numerous locations throughout the state, including a three-hour wait at one Providence polling place.

Rhode Island’s homeless rate up 10 percent

Rhode Island’s homeless population increased by 10.5 percent last year, according to a new study released on Wednesday.

The statistics, which were compiled by the state’s Homeless Management Information System, found that 4,900 people spent at least one night in a homeless shelter in 2012, up from 4,400 the previous year. The research also showed that veterans and children were hit especially hard, with homelessness rates increasing 23 percent and 17 percent respectively.

The news comes just one week after Sen. Jack Reed announced that the state would be receiving a $4.8 million federal grant to help reduce homelessness. According to Reed, the funding will be distributed amongst 43 local housing assistance programs throughout the state.

In June, Rhode Island became the first state to sign a “Homeless Bill of Rights” into law, which guarantees that no homeless individual(s) be denied the right to access public services. 


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