When the Hawai`i State Senate passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana (or cannabis) as they did last Session; when 46% of California voters supported an initiative to legalize marijuana outright; when the last three Presidents admitted to using pot (well, kind of) – things are really changing.

For too long media coverage of cannabis issues has used every conceivable angle to maintain the giggle factor in discussions of the legal status of pot. But guess what? In these times of record state deficits and rapidly changing societal attitudes, we can no longer afford to keep joking about stoners while spending money on counter-productive cannabis policies.

Even the Star Advertiser opined last week (2/9/11) that Hawai`i should “Adopt [a] Lesser Pot Penalty.” They were referring to S.B. 1460 which passed out of its first Senate Committee last week. This bill would downgrade possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a petty misdemeanor to a civil infraction (like a traffic ticket.) It would impose a maximum fine of $100. The current penalty calls for a fine of $1000 and a possible 30 days in jail (though these are rarely imposed.)

The bill’s findings section relies heavily on a report that the Drug Policy Action Group commissioned and published in 2007. Lawrence “Bill” Boyd, Professor of Economics at UH West Oahu, found that the current criminal penalty does not prevent people from using pot, but does cost the state big bucks and label those convicted with a criminal record. This makes it difficult to get jobs, housing and even federal student loans.

His research showed that there is no correlation between a state’s penalties for pot and the rate of usage. In other words, states with extremely harsh penalties may have high rates of use and vice versa. And significantly, states which decriminalized pot (now some 13), saw no statistical increase in use. Nor has any state ever re-criminalized cannabis.

What decriminalizing pot would do is free up the police and judicial resources to deal with more important crimes. It would prevent hundreds of people from being saddled with a criminal record. It would save the state some $4.1 million annually enforcing marijuana possession laws and an additional $2.1 million in court expenditures, according to Boyd. And these savings would accrue by eliminating a “crime” that we rank as a “petty misdemeanor” demonstrating that Hawai`i already regards it as a low priority.

The best argument that law enforcement can come up with is that decriminalizing pot would “send the wrong message” to kids. Well that train has already left the station. With more than 50% of high school grads having tried pot, its use is normalized – like it or not. Kids don’t believe what we tell them anyway about the harms of drugs thanks to the exaggerations of the DARE program which remains inexplicably popular in Hawai`i.

The cops are also fond of the old saw that marijuana has a gateway effect leading to more harmful drugs. But the Institute of Medicine laid that canard to rest in 1999 in a report that found that there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs. Any gateway effect they concluded was “opportunistic,” meaning that when marijuana is illegal like the other drugs, there is equally easy access to all substances in the same category.

As a last ditch effort, enforcement is fond of saying that “today’s pot is not your father’s pot.” But data from the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project (2009) show that the average THC content (the psychoactive ingredient) in domestically grown marijuana, which comprises the bulk of the U.S. market, is less than 5% – a figure that has been unchanged for the last decade. Similarly a UK study concluded, “Statements in the popular media that the potency of cannabis has increased by ten times or more in recent decades are not supported by the data from either the USA or Europe.” (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2004)

Despite these efforts to block them, decriminalization efforts stand a good change in Hawaii this year. As in 2010, a bill is likely to pass the Senate. Then it will be a matter of convincing the House to follow suit.

Polls in both Hawai`i and the mainland indicate that the majority of residents believe that no one should be subject to criminal penalties – and certainly not face jail time – for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Maybe we’re finally returning to the pragmatic pre-Reagan years like 1977, when President Jimmy Carter said, in a message to Congress, “Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against the possession of marijuana in private for personal use.” You tell ‘em, Jimmy.

Pam Lichty is the President and Co-Founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, a non-profit organization established in 1993 to encourage discussion and promote public education about current and alternative drug policies and related issues.

She is a board member of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs. In addition she has served on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii since 1987. She serves as Chair of the state’s Sterile Needle Exchange Oversight Committee.

She has been a point people on drug testing, medical marijuana, and other drug policy issues for both the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and the ACLU of Hawaii and testifies frequently at both the Hawaii State Legislature and the Board of Education.

She received a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1968 and a Masters in Public Health from the University of Hawaii in 1987. She is married and has two adult children.