By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - A law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana went into effect in Rhode Island on Monday after the state last year became the 15th in the United States to enact such legislation.
Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the legislation into law in June but it did not take effect until Monday, a move intended to allow time for officials to work out procedures, said state Representative John Edwards, a co-sponsor of the measure.
Possession of one ounce (28 grams) or less of marijuana in Rhode Island now constitutes a civil offense punishable by a $150 fine and forfeiture of the drug, though three offenses in an 18-month period amount to a misdemeanor.
"I think it's going to save our police a lot of problems," he said, adding that what might have been mere "youthful indiscretion" will no longer lead to a criminal record that might have long-term consequences.
Previously, possession of even small amounts of marijuana in the smallest U.S. state was considered a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $500.
Under the new law, minors caught with marijuana will have to complete a drug awareness program and perform community service. Half the revenue from fines will be put toward youth education and treatment programs.
State Senator Joshua Miller, another co-sponsor of the legislation, said the new law would take the state in "the right direction" and would lead to better outcomes for young people who might otherwise face law enforcement and incarceration.
Rhode Island's neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut have also decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
U.S. drug officials have classified marijuana as an illegal drug with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse since 1970.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)