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Marijuana penalties ease in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE — Rhode ­Island became the latest state Monday to roll back criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession, replacing the threat of jail time with something more like a traffic citation.

While it is still a criminal ­offense to drive while under the influence of marijuana, adults caught with an ounce or less of marijuana now face a $150 civil fine and a hearing at the state’s traffic court.

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Minors will also be required to complete community service and a drug-awareness class. The incident will not appear on an individual’s criminal record, though anyone cited three times within 18 months will face misdemeanor charges.

Fourteen states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Last year, Colorado and Washington went further, becoming the first American states to ­legalize the drug.

Advocates for changing marijuana policies applauded Rhode Island’s new law at a State House event Monday.

Dr. David Lewis, a physician and Brown University professor who studies drug addiction, said criminal penalties for ­minor marijuana offenses are expensive, unnecessary, and ­ineffective. He would like to see the state go further in regulating marijuana.

‘‘Rhode Island has taken a significant step in correcting what I think . . . is an error in the law,’’ he said. ‘‘I think we have a conversation going on right now in Rhode Island.’’

The law was passed last year, but its enactment was ­delayed until April 1 to give ­police time to prepare. State ­Police Captain John Lemont said officers in many departments have been trained on the new procedures for handling marijuana cases.

‘‘It’s not legalization; it’s ­decriminalization,’’ Lemont said. ‘‘It’s still a civil offense. ­Essentially, it’s going to be a traffic ticket.’’

But state Representative Jim McLaughlin, a Cumberland Democrat, said decriminalization sends the wrong message to teenagers and could ease the way for legalization.

A bill to subject marijuana to alcohol-style regulations and taxes is pending in the General Assembly, but is unlikely to pass this year.

‘‘It’s a mind-altering drug,’’ he said. ‘‘We can’t even handle our alcohol.’’

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