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Efforts to relax pot rules gaining momentum in US

Marijuana policy is appearing on legislative agendas around the country thanks to an energized base of supporters and an increasingly open-minded public.

By David KlepperAssociated Press / June 10, 2012

A marijuana plant, in Portland, Ore. Marijuana policy is appearing on legislative agendas around the country thanks to an energized base of supporters and an increasingly open-minded public.

Rick Bowmer/AP

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.

Catharine Leach is married and has two boys, age 2 and 8. She has a good job with a federal contractor and smokes pot most every day.

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While she worries that her public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization could cost her a job or bring the police to her door, the 30-year-old Warwick resident said she was tired of feeling like a criminal for using a drug that she said is far less harmful than the glass or wine or can of beer enjoyed by so many others after a long day's work. Like others around the nation working to relax penalties for possession of pot, she decided to stop hiding and speak out.

"I'm done being afraid," she said. "People in this country are finally coming around and seeing that putting someone in jail for this doesn't make sense. It's just a changing of the time."

Once consigned to the political fringe, marijuana policy is appearing on legislative agendas around the country thanks to an energized base of supporters and an increasingly open-minded public. Lawmakers from Rhode Island to Colorado are mulling medical marijuana programs, pot dispensaries, decriminalization and even legalization. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now authorize medical marijuana and 14, including neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, have rolled back criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.

Decriminalize marijuana? Four ways America's views of pot are changing

Rhode Island is poised to become the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana possession. The state's General Assembly passed legislation last week that would eliminate the threat of big fines or even jail time for the possession of an ounce or less of pot. Instead, adults caught with small amounts of marijuana would face a $150 civil fine. Police would confiscate the marijuana, but the incident would not appear on a person's criminal record.

Minors caught with pot would also have to complete a drug awareness program and community service.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has said he is inclined to sign the legislation.

One of the bill's sponsors, state Rep. John Edwards of Tiverton, has introduced similar proposals in past years but the idea always sputtered in committee. Each year, though, he got more co-sponsors, and the bill passed the House this year 50-24. The state Senate passed it 28-6.

Some supporters of decriminalization say they'd like to go even further.

"America's 50-year war on drugs has been an abysmal failure," said Rep. John Savage, a retired school principal from East Providence. "Marijuana in this country should be legalized. It should be sold and taxed."

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