High-Ranking Rhode Island Politician Facing Drug Charges

A leading Rhode Island lawmaker who invoked images of pot-smoking immigrants in order to criticize the Legislature is now facing drug charges in Connecticut.

Police in East Haven, Conn., say East Greenwich Republican Robert Watson, the House Minority Leader, was stopped at a police checkpoint Friday and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and driving under the influence.

Watson drew fire in February when he gave a speech to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce in which he said 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 concerns that other issues were dominating the legislative agenda at the expense of the economy.

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.

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Watson's office released a statement Monday in which he denied that 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.

Watson will 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's concerned 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."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press. 

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