Hawaii Lawmakers OK Study on Decriminalizing Drugs



The full Hawaii House of Representatives voted Tuesday to pass the measure, 37-7, with 7 members absent. It now heads to the Senate.


Lawmakers in Hawaii have advanced a proposal to study whether the state should decriminalize all drugs.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 to approve a resolution requesting that the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau “conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of decriminalizing the illegal possession of drugs for personal use in Hawaii” so that such conduct “would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense.”

It now heads to the House floor, where a vote could come as soon as this week.

Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Action Group, was in attendance at the committee hearing and told Marijuana.com that the resolution was slightly amended to limit the scope of the proposed study by the Legislative Reference Bureau to only those drug offenses that are a C class felony or below.

Charlotte A. Carter-Yamauchi, the bureau’s acting director, had testified that conducting a top-to-bottom review of all the state’s drug penalties could “prove to be overwhelming.”

Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana.com that advocates are “very excited” to see the proposal moving forward.

“This study comes at a time when our state’s lawmakers and those around the country are having a double awakening regarding the failed War on Drugs,” he said. “At the the same time that the system of mass incarceration and criminalization is being repudiated, people are finally beginning to see drug users as patients in need of treatment and not prisoners to be locked up. Studying and ultimately changing these laws marks the beginning. It is great to see Hawai’i blaze the trail.”

The same day the Hawaii committee voted to approve the study resolution, a panel of leading health experts from around the world recommended global drug decriminalization.

Doing so can lead to “significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits and no significant increase in drug use,” said the commission, which was set up by leading British medical journal The Lancet and top U.S. medical school Johns Hopkins University.

The Hawaii study, which would be due later this year in preparation for the legislature’s 2017 session, would examine Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs as a possible model for the state.

In 2001, that country decriminalized all drugs, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine. While use and possession remain technically illegal, people caught with small amounts of drugs are not arrested or sent to prison. Rather, they are brought before three-member commissions that can recommend treatment or assign fines and other administrative remedies. Drug trafficking and sales are still punishable as crimes.

A 2009 Cato Institute report, cited in the Hawaii House resolution, found that since decriminalization went into effect, drug use by Portuguese teenagers has dropped, as have drug-related deaths and HIV/AIDS rates among drug users. Enrollment in drug treatment is up.

As a concurrent resolution, the Hawaii proposal would not need the support of Gov. David Ige (D). But, because it would not have the force of law, it merely requests that the study be done without mandating it.

According to the state’s legislative calendar, the resolution needs to pass the House and cross over to the Senate by next Thursday, April 7 in order to have a chance of being enacted this year.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

1 Comment

  1. DWallace32342 on

    Cannabis does cause some impairment, however studies have shown that consumers tend to overestimate this impairment, and that they compensate for it with added caution. Alcohol tends to do the opposite, consumers perceive their impairment to be less that what it actually is and often become overconfident, aggressive, and careless. [Robbe and O’Hanlon. 1993; Robbe. 1995]

    To find out how cannabis use affects crash risk overall, in 2015 the U.S. government completed the largest case controlled study to date regarding DUI of cannabis and crash risk. It involved over 9,000 cases and controls spanning a 20-month period. It found that cannabis use while driving is not associated with increased crash risk once adjusted for confounding variables such as age, race, gender, and the presence of other drugs, including alcohol:

    “This analysis shows that the significant increased risk of crash involvement associated with THC and illegal drugs shown in Table 3 is not found after adjusting for these demographic variables.”

    Further, they found that cannabis did not add to the crash risk for drivers under the influence of alcohol:

    “As was described above, there was no difference in crash risk for marijuana (THC)-positive drivers who were also positive for alcohol than for marijuana (THC)-positive drivers with no alcohol, beyond the risk attributable to alcohol.”

    They found that alcohol greatly increased crash risk:

    “at moderate alcohol levels (0.05 BrAC) risk increases to double that of sober drivers, and at a higher level (0.10 BrAC) the risk increases to five and a half times. At a BrAC of 0.15, the risk is 12 times, and by BrACs of 0.20+ the risk is over 23 times higher.”

    [Compton and Berning. DOT HS 812 117. Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk. U.S. Department of Transportation – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2015.]

    It is clear that DUI of alcohol is far more dangerous than DUI of cannabis. That said, at some point one could potentially be high enough to significantly increase crash risk, something roughly the equivalent of 0.08% BAC, and DUI laws should reflect that, and be based on actual impairment, not unscientific “per se” limits. It takes very large amounts of cannabis to reach this level vs just a few drinks of alcohol. It is rare for anyone this high to want to actually drive a car, whereas it is commonplace for someone legally drunk to attempt to drive, even at impairment levels far exceeding that of 0.08%, which are not even obtainable with cannabis.


    –Robbe and O’Hanlon. DOT HS 808 078. Marijuana and actual driving performance. U.S. Department of Transportation – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 1993.

    –Robbe H. Marijuana’s effects on actual driving performance. HHMRC Road Research Unit, University of Adelaide. 1995.

    Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in Dec 2012 (Jan 2014 for retail sales) and did not experience a surge in fatal traffic accidents:

    2012: 474 (Population: 5.19 million, 0.0091%)
    2013: 481 (Population: 5.27 million, 0.0091%)
    2014: 488 (Population: 5.36 million, 0.0091%)
    [SOURCE: Colorado DOT & “As Reported” to NHTSA by FARS]

    Recreational cannabis use was legalized in Washington state in Dec of 2012. Retail sales began in July, 2014. They also did not experience a surge in fatal traffic accidents:

    2011: 421 (Population: 6.82 million, 0.0062%)
    2012: 403 (Population: 6.90 million, 0.0058%)
    2013: 401 (Population: 6.97 million, 0.0057%)
    [SOURCE: Washington State Department of Transportation – 2012, 2013 Annual Collision Summary]

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