EAST HAVEN, Conn. — The minority leader of the Rhode Island House, who recently dismissed debate over the decriminalization of marijuana as not worthy of legislators' time, is facing pot-possession charges in Connecticut.
Robert Watson, a Republican from East Greenwich, was stopped at a police checkpoint Friday and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and driving under the influence, East Haven police said.
Watson drew fire in February when he gave a speech to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce in which he said facetiously that lawmakers had their priorities right "if you are a Guatemalan gay man who likes to gamble and smokes marijuana."
He later said he was using humor to express concern that some issues were dominating the legislative agenda at the expense of economic issues.
A police report on Friday's traffic stop said Watson smelled of alcohol and marijuana and performed poorly on sobriety tests. An officer found a bag of suspected marijuana and a wooden pipe in Watson's pocket. An alcohol breath test performed at the police station determined that Watson's blood-alcohol level was 0.05 percent, below the state's 0.08 limit.
Watson was released on $500 bond. He faces a May 11 court date.
Watson issued a statement in which he denied he was driving under the influence. He said he was in Connecticut to help a friend move and was driving home from dinner when he was stopped.
"Trace evidence of marijuana was discovered and I was charged with operating under the influence, a charge I vehemently deny," Watson said in the statement.
After his February speech, Guatemalan community leaders called on Watson to apologize, but Watson said an apology wasn't warranted.
Watson won't face immediate political repercussions for the charges. The state's Ethics Commission doesn't investigate allegations that fall outside a lawmaker's public duties.
So far, lawmakers are standing by him.
House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, often finds himself at political odds with Watson but on Monday called him a friend and offered support "during this difficult time."
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, called the incident "very unfortunate" but said Watson is entitled to due process.
Watson plans to discuss the criminal case with his fellow Republican House members Tuesday.
Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown, said the drug charges aren't causing him to reconsider his support for Watson. But he worries the incident could distract lawmakers from more important work.
"It's obviously very unfortunate," Ehrhardt told The Associated Press. "But I will fight to make sure this doesn't divert us for one minute from the budget."