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Puerto Rico Bill Would Expunge Low-Level Weed Possession Convictions

Puerto Rico senator Jose “Chaco” Vargas Vidot has proposed a bill which would exonerate low-level marijuana possession charges. The sponsor of the legislation, independent Senator José “Chaco” Vargas Vidot, filed the bill on October 11, saying that he was inspired by President Joseph Biden’s announcement five days earlier that he would pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession.

Puerto Rico senator John McCain was speaking out about an October 6 announcement by Biden in which the President stated that he would pardon any federal convictions for simple cannabis possession. The president’s pardons will affect about 6,500 people who were convicted of marijuana possession under federal law and thousands more in the District of Columbia, according to a report from The New York Times. Biden called for similar actions at the state and local levels, which is where most cannabis possession cases are filed.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement on October 6. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

Under Vidot’s plan, possession of up to five grams of cannabis would be decriminalized. According to Vidot, the limit allows for personal use and larger amounts would be prohibited.

Puerto Rico: Pot Possession Penalties

Puerto Rico’s possession of marijuana is a felony. This means that you could face up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to $5,000. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the punishment for any subsequent offenses can be even more severe. The time spent behind bars could increase to 4-10 years.

According to inmate population information from Puerto Rico’s Department of Corrections (DCR), 65% of prisoners, or about 5,000 of the 7,000 people behind bars, suffer from problematic substance misuse. DCR reports also reveal that around 8% of prisoners were first exposed to drugs when they entered prison.

“Undoubtedly, these figures reflect a problem of availability of substances within the country’s prison institutions,” Vidot said. “Thus, people who report that they were not substance users prior to the conviction begin this process of consumption and addiction within the institution,” Vidot said. “For those people who were already fighting the disease of drug addiction when entering the penal system, the condition worsens within it.”

Following Biden’s announcement, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said that he would not follow the example set by the president’s executive order to pardon marijuana possession convictions, adding that DCR records indicate that no prisoners are being held for possession of marijuana. But Vidot countered that the agency’s records do not contain enough information to make that determination.

“The governor has already said that he will not give way to the executive order, lacking the will and courage to take an important step for justice,” Vidot said. “It is statistically impossible to know the number of inmates for simple possession of marijuana, because when they arrive at Corrections they tell them the law they violated, not the specific drug. Now the question is, who will have the courage to join me and give way to this in Puerto Rico?”

Vidot (as well as a public health worker), introduced Senate Bill 911 in 2018, which would have made it legal to possess all controlled substances. While the bill is primarily focused on marijuana possession, Vidot stated that he would love to see all drug possession penalties eliminated by the Puerto Rican government.

“Even though the goal should be the decriminalization of all drugs, as several advanced jurisdictions have already successfully done, with this proposal we advance the decriminalization of cannabis or marijuana, taking the first step in that direction,” he said.