Reclassifying possession of a small amount of marijuana to a civil violation similar to a traffic offense would send the wrong message to children, say law enforcement officials, who urged lawmakers to reconsider a proposal to decriminalize the drug.
Supporters of the measure counter that marijuana possession would still be illegal but that taking the matter out of the criminal justice system would free up courts, saving time and money.
Two Senate committees advanced the measure yesterday.
Under the proposal, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana would be considered a civil violation subject to a $100 fine.
Defendants caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would not be required to undergo substance abuse treatment, and such possession would not constitute intent to distribute. Additionally, educators would not be required to report such possession to authorities, although they would have the option of doing so.
Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of the Judiciary and Labor Committee, cited research showing most marijuana cases for small amounts result in nominal fines.
The bill, which is co-signed by 20 of the Senate’s 25 members, also cites research from 18 states where similar laws exist — either statewide or at the municipal level — showing those jurisdictions have not seen negative consequences.
Deputy Attorney General Mark Miyahara questioned the research methodology, noting that prosecution of possession cases has to consider all circumstances.
For example, he said one ounce of the drug can be rolled into as many as 56 individual marijuana cigarettes. A defendant caught with that many cigarettes, especially if caught near a school or in Chinatown, would likely be prosecuted as a dealer, Miyahara said.
Keith Kamita, deputy public safety director, said the law sends the wrong message to young people. Whereas authorities have always told children to stay away from drugs, "by doing this we feel that we’re kind of hedging," Kamita said.
Hee noted marijuana still would be illegal, just as speeding is, but that it would be treated differently.
Pamela Lichty of the Drug Policy Action Group said reducing simple possession to a civil matter is a pragmatic solution that still sends the message that drugs are illegal.
She said criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana "saddle those arrested with a damaging criminal record that can make it impossible for an otherwise law-abiding citizen to obtain a job, housing or student loans."
Pending approval by the full Senate on the second of three required votes, the bill would go to the Ways and Means Committee. A similar measure in the House has not been scheduled for a hearing.