In the years since marijuana was decriminalized in Rhode Island, the Warwick Police Department has written more citations for its possession than the police departments of Providence and Cranston combined.
Between April of 2013, when marijuana was decriminalized, and this past September, the Warwick Police Department has issued 934 citations, according to public records. Rather than facing criminal charges, those who possess less than 1 oz. now only face a $150 fine. Over the course of the past five years, however, these fines have generated more than $140,000.
Despite leading the state with the highest number of citations, compared to 18 other cities and towns, Warwick Police Chief Col. Stephen M. McCartney said he was surprised by the statistics. The last time the department discussed decriminalization was nearly five years ago when the legislation was put into effect, according to McCartney.
“We meet monthly for our crime analysis, where we take a look at all of our crimes, and that’s not even a crime, it’s a violation,” McCartney said. “It doesn’t even come up in our meetings. We have more serious things to discuss than violations.”
McCartney suspects that high volumes of traffic passing through the city every day may be to blame for these numbers. When analysing arrest records from 2012, The Beacon found that 76 percent of all of all adult arrests for marijuana possession were the result of traffic violations. Nearly half of all these traffic violations, from failing to use a directional to running a red light, were also accompanied by other charges as well.
“In a year, we probably make about 2,000 traffic stops,” McCartney said. “We’re a high enforcement department because of the traffic issues. Marijuana is an underlying issue that may come out of that. That’s more the case than, per say, marijuana being the hot burner issue.”
Providence, which has twice as many residents as Warwick, has only written 252 citations since 2013. And Cranston, which has an approachingly identical population size to Warwick, has only written 188 citations. McCartney acknowledged that this huge discrepancy in enforcement between departments may be due to the different challenges facing each community. While not wishing to speak on behalf of different departments, having served with the Providence Police Department earlier in his career has given McCartney some insight.
“I understand where the priorities have to be in Providence, and I can understand that marijuana decriminalization is not high on the burner there,” he said. “I mean, you hear the chief coming on the radio all the time and he’s more interested in seizing guns than he is worried about marijuana.”
Although McCartney, as a member of the Association of Chiefs of Police, is opposed to a full-scale legalization of marijuana, he said he won’t stand in the way of the law if new legislation were to pass.
“I’m very realistic,” McCartney said. “Once a law gets passed you have to sit back and say, ‘Okay, what do you do now?’”
Currently, McCartney is working towards bringing on more Drug Recognition Experts onto the force, since the department is currently down to one officer with these credentials, in the case that legalization were to pass in the near future. So far no such legislation has been put forward in Rhode Island.
One of the biggest issues with legalizing marijuana, according to Warwick Traffic Unit Sgt. John Kelly, is that there is no quick and definitive way to determine if someone is driving under the influence. While breathalyzers can display a driver’s blood alcohol content in a matter of moments, police must rely on blood tests to determine tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels.
“A lot of states legalized it and didn’t think about that upfront,” Kelly said. “Denver is having a huge problem right now.”
In August, The Denver Post reported sharp spikes in traffic fatalities linked to marijuana, which have been on the rise in Colorado each year since 2013.
Getting behind the wheel while under the influence could be deadly, according to Kelly, but that doesn’t deter everyone.
“The perception with most people is that they think it’s legal, and that it’s alright and okay to smoke and drive around,” Kelly said.
Statistics gathered in this report were acquired through an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request.