House and Senate negotiators agreed this morning to a bill that would decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia, reducing the penalties for being caught with items such as a marijuana pipe or cigarette rolling papers to no more than $500.
State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who introduced the bill, said she expects the measure will help to reduce overcrowding in the state’s jails.
When law enforcement authorities add a felony drug paraphernalia charge to other charges filed against people who are arrested, that increases the amount of cash those people person must produce to post bail and get out of jail, she said. That means paraphernalia charges contribute to jail crowding, she said.
“If you’re caught at a party with a joint and rolling papers, odds are you’re not going to have the thousands of dollars required in cash on hand to bail yourself out,” she said. The measure would also cover items ranging from a methamphetamine pipe or needles to a plastic bag coated with drug residue.
“I’m hoping it’s one step toward a more rational drug policy program, but I’m taking it as it is,” said San Buenaventura. (D, Hawaiian Acres-Pahoa-Kalapana).
Hawaii now has some of the most punitive drug paraphernalia laws in the nation, with possession of a pipe or other drug-related items punishable by up to five years in prison, and a $10,000 fine.
San Buenaventura also said leaving that law in place would have a “chilling effect” on state plans to open medical marijuana dispensaries around the state.
The issue will be important to the operators of medical marijuana dispensaries because “they’re going to need to sell paraphernalia to show the users how to use the medical marijuana that they sell,” she said.
The measure now advances to the full House and Senate for floor votes. If approved, it will then go to Gov. David Ige for his consideration, and it is unclear what Ige might do.
The measure has been strongly opposed by Ige’s state Attorney General Douglas Chin as well as the Honolulu and Hawaii island prosecutors.
Chin argued in his testimony that changing the law probably won’t do much to reduce the prison population.
A felony paraphernalia charge is rarely filed by itself, and is more commonly filed in addition to another drug felony such as third-degree possession of a dangerous drug, which is also punishable by up to five years in prison, Chin said in written testimony.
In other words, most people charged with felony paraphernalia possession are already facing prison time for another charge. Chin also said that most people convicted of paraphernalia possession are not required to serve out the full five-year maximum unless they are repeat offenders or have violent criminal histories.