POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 9, 2011
State legislators appear prepared to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, which would result in fewer tax dollars spent on enforcement of the current law. Turning a criminal misdemeanor to a civil violation appears to have worked in the 11 states that made that change in the 1970s -- plus two more since then -- and should be adopted in Hawaii.
The shift would not cause our prisons to be emptied. Some marijuana possession arrests are made in connection with other crimes or at traffic stops. Others stem from a person search prompted by another alleged crime. Rarely is a person arrested by police upon being spotted puffing pakalolo.
About two-thirds of those marijuana-alone cases are dismissed, only a few are prosecuted and, of those convicted, virtually none serve jail time, according to a 2007 study by University of Hawaii economist Lawrence W. Boyd. He estimated that decriminalization of marijuana would save state and county governments $5 million a year, mostly for enforcement rather than the court process.
A proposal co-signed by 20 of the state Senate's 25 members would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil violation subject to a $100 fine. The offense is now a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Hawaii is among at least eight states where decriminalization, or reduction in penalty, is being considered. Criminal penalties for trafficking, selling and distributing to minors would remain intact, and the state seems far away from legalization of growing or distributing marijuana, even in small amounts.
Justification for decriminalization, as mentioned in studies cited in Senate Bill 1460, is sound: The current petty misdemeanor charge does not deter marijuana use, while decriminalizing the minor pot possession would free up police and judicial resources to deal with more serious crimes.
"Clearly, although the cost to enforce marijuana possession laws is substantial, the resulting conviction rate is low," the bill states.
In opposing the change, however, law enforcement officials such as interim Public Safety Director Jodie Maesaka-Hirata testified to a Senate committee that it "sends the wrong message to the citizens and youth of Hawaii."
That approach has given marijuana the moniker of the "gateway drug." However, that is more the result of marijuana being distributed along with cocaine, heroin and crystal meth by criminal drug dealers than it is being the first step in the journey up the list of illegal drugs. In fact, marijuana is not the illicit scourge those other drugs are, having been recognized and approved by Hawaii law for medical use if prescribed by a licensed physician. And on the federal level, recent Department of Justice guidelines, in overrriding previous policy, now tell federal officers not to go after marijuana users or suppliers who comply with states' medical marijuana laws.
Indeed, Hawaii should take a more important first step by creating a system for medical patients to gain access to marijuana without having to do business with illegal drug dealers. The Legislature overrode then-Gov. Linda Lingle's 2009 veto aimed at creating a task force to find a way for patients to obtain it legally, but Lingle refused to construct the task force.