Hawaii Senate Approves Drug Decriminalization Study

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Both chambers of the Hawaii Legislature have now voted in favor of the state examining decriminalization of some drugs.

On Monday, the Senate approved a resolution requesting that the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau “conduct a study on the potential impact on state government 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.”

The House approved a version of the measure last month by a vote of 37-7 but, because the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor amended the resolution last week, it must again go back to the House for additional consideration before it is officially enacted.

Whereas the original House version of the measure would have requested a study on decriminalizing all drugs, the Senate panel narrowed its scope to only include offenses that “pertain to the illegal possession of a harmful drug, detrimental drug, marijuana or marijuana concentrate.”

The definition of harmful and detrimental drugs under Hawaii law refers only to substances classified in state Schedules III, IV and V, and do not include cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, psilocybin, LSD and other commonly used illegal drugs.

Advocates say that the resolution could still be further amended to reinstate its initial broader scope.

“We shall see what the House has to say about this, they wanted ALL drugs to be part of the study and it was their resolution,” Carl Bergquist of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana.com in an email.

Hawaii’s consideration of some decriminalization comes as a growing number of world leaders and health experts are rethinking the global drug war. Last week, the United Nations held its highest-level review of drug policies since 1998. At the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS), officials from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and other nations forcefully spoke out about the failure of current policies and announced reforms.

And last month, 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 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.

Twenty U.S. states have passed laws that decriminalize marijuana, which at a minimum remove the threat of jail time for first-time simple possession offenses.

If the Hawaii House signs off on the Senate changes, or further amends the resolution and can get the Senate to agree, the state would be the first to approve an official study on broader decriminalization of drugs.

Last year, legislators in Vermont’s House of Representatives introduced a measure to direct the state’s Office of Legislative Council to study a “noncriminal public health approach” to drugs, but it was never scheduled for a hearing or vote.

And this February, a Maryland lawmaker, Del. Dan Morhaim (D), introduced legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. After a hearing in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee it was defeated by a vote of 18-1.

The Hawaii Legislature is scheduled to adjourn next Thursday, May 5.

This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the scope of the Senate’s amendments to the resolution.

Photo Courtesy of Jiri Hera.

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.)

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