Editorial: New laws, ranging from pot fines to banning plastics, part of Hawaii’s pendulum swings
As the year begins, it is encouraging to see long-sought reforms, at a minimum, in position to serve the public interest.
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Hawaii lies thousands of miles from the mainland — and culturally, it can seem a world away. Nevertheless the raft of new state laws that went into effect in 2020 does reflect certain national trends — pendulum swings to tighten the rules in one area, loosen them in another.
There is the move away from plastic packaging and supplies. This is an established trendline nationally, although the ban newly enacted by the Honolulu City Council, once it’s fully implemented, will equip Oahu with one of the most rigorous regulations in the country. And the existing plastic bag ban is effectively toughened with the elimination of further bag options stores can issue.
The most significant new laws are in effect at the state level. Hawaii, already restrictive about gun rights, is one of the few to follow through on the rhetoric about “red flag” laws.
These statutes restrict access to guns for those identified as presenting a risk to public safety. Last month’s Pearl Harbor shooting underscored how the factor of mental health weighs into any discussion on gun rights.
But the new state laws that may signal the most significant change in Hawaii policy is the decriminalization of possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and the creation of a criminal justice commission that could oversee much-needed reform of the system.
The marijuana pendulum swing has a long arc. Hawaii moved from aggressive prosecution of marijuana cultivation and use, to a decision 20 years ago to legalize medical cannabis. But only in recent years have lawmakers enabled the creation and regulation of marijuana for medicinal use through a network of legal growers and dispensaries.
The drive toward decriminalization makes good policy sense for Hawaii and other states where police and courts are swamped, even without piles of these nonviolent minor cases.
Some critics have pointed to the small threshold as excessively restrictive: The 3-gram limit for decriminalization is the lowest amount in the country. As the new law is implemented, that issue can come up for further review.
The state has not joined the ranks of those completely legalizing recreational marijuana, owing to an abundance of caution. There almost certainly will be another push toward full legalization in the Legislature, convening next week.
Judging by some of the experiences in the states that have taken the plunge, this caution seems warranted.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. But the experience so far in those places has not been without problems.
Advocates initially anticipated that legalization would bring the substance under supervision, but alongside the increasing usage, black-market sales often have grown, too.
The quality control and higher product costs found in medical cannabis dispensaries are countered by unregulated production. States have found the hoped-for level of tax revenue doesn’t always materialize.
The substance is still illegal on the federal level, another complication. As a result, there also is a dearth of data on the long- and short-term health impacts of marijuana use.
Some studies described what’s called “cannabis use disorder.” This can be observed among users who become compulsive about using, and who avoid social interactions where it may not be allowed. Of course, this is not universally or even broadly documented, but until there is better research on the impacts on public health, Hawaii would be wise to wait.
There is no burning need to legalize recreational marijuana use now, and it’s not always advantageous to be on the leading edge of a surge such as this one.
That said, it makes sense to handle small-scale possession as a lesser infraction, punishable by a fine, rather than a crime that tarnishes the record of recreational users, often young people. And prosecution simply heaps more of a burden on the criminal justice system it can ill afford.
That raises the hopeful prospect of positive change driven by reforms enacted through last year’s House Bill 1552. Now called Act 179, the new law established the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, as well as carried out recommendations of a criminal pretrial task force that submitted its report a year ago.
These include bail reforms such as better risk assessments aimed at shrinking the pretrial detainee population.
The commission would provide a clearer view for the public into the management of the prison system, which has been beset with problems of safety and efficiency. This function is welcome, given the strains of the overcrowded and deteriorating prison system and its insufficient staffing.
There’s much left to do — not the least of which is monitoring by elected lawmakers to see that the various changes do strengthen the system, as intended. But as the year begins, it is encouraging to see long-sought reforms, at a minimum, in position to serve the public interest.