Rod Driver

Column from the URI Cigar, November 4, 1988

Referendum One more complex than its initial appearance


Despite state and federal efforts to 1ock up traffickers and cut off supplies of drugs, the drug problem gets worse.

So the first referendum question on the ballot November 8 will be a proposed amendment to the R.I. Constitution to "get tough" by denying bail to suspected drug dealers.

Rhode Island politicians have rushed to endorse this. How could a politician not support it (especially in an election year)?

Here are some possible reasons.

Nothing on the ballot will point it out, but most of the language of "Question 1" is already in the R.I.

Constitution. Our constitution already permits judges to deny bail to persons accused of offenses punishable by life imprisonment, or offenses involving the sale, distribution, or delivery of drugs if the penalty would be ten years or more (and "the proof of guilt is evident or the presumption great").

The proposed constitutional amendment would add to the list, offenses involving "possession of a controlled substance punishable by imprisonment for ten years or more." (I've deleted a confusing typographical error which appears in the official wording.)

Denial of bail before a person is convicted of a crime is always a serious step in a society where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But passage of Question 1 would actually give future general assemblies a blank check for imprisonment without bail on drug charges.

In its 1988 session, the R.I. General Assembly decreed a minimum sentence of ten years in prison for possession of one ounce of a mixture containing a " detectable amount of cocaine " or one kilogram of a mixture containing a "detectable amount of marijuana." Bills like this sail through the House and Senate unanimously--especially in an election year. (One day the House even approved ten-year sentences for possession of "cocoa leaves ", thinking this had something to do with cocaine.)

If Question 1 is approved by the voters, then future general assemblies can extend the conditions for denial of bail before trial by simply lowering the amounts of a drug for which a ten-year sentence would be the penalty.

Furthermore, even under present law, no government official seems to have any idea where all the extra prisoners will go. Every week we get another reminder that the ACI is grossly overcrowded. The intake center, where persons denied bail are held, was designed for 168 prisoners and is under court order not to exceed 250. But in recent weeks, it has actually held up to 450 prisoners at a time.

Rhode Island voters have repeatedly rejected bond issues for prisons; and Cranston recently revoked its permission for construction of a new medium-security prison in that city.

There's no question that drugs are a big problem. Just recently, Rhode Island got new data on the extent of marijuana usage. An excise tax on cigarette rolling papers took effect on July 1. The returns show that the number of rolling papers sold in our little state in just the three months of July, August and September exceeded seven million! It is safe to assume that the great majority of these were used for marijuana.

As long as the demand exists, drugs will be supplied. So perhaps our best hope for reducing the use of drugs lies in education to keep young people from getting started, plus readily available treatment for addicts who want to quit. These are the methods which have dramatically reduced tobacco smoking in the United States in recent years.

But the reports on education and treatment are mixed.

The most dangerous drug in the United States and one of the most addictive is nicotine. It is also a "gateway" drug which youngsters take up first, before going on to marijuana and cocaine. Thus a bill in the legislature to ban smoking in elementary and secondary schools was supported enthusiastically by the R.1. Health Department, the Attorney General's office, the Lung Association, the Heart Association, and the Cancer Society.

It was opposed by the tobacco industry. And it died in committee.

However, on Nov. 8, R.l. voters will have a chance to do something positive about treatment of drug addicts who want to quit. Question 8 on the ballot seeks authorization for $3.2 million worth of bonds for three substance abuse treatment centers to house and treat up to 48 young male drug abusers (aged 12-14). Such facilities are badly needed in R.I. where our existing residential treatment center -- in Pawtucket -- is for females only.

Question 8 deserves support. Question I requires critical thinking-- which it probably won't get.