Is it a good thing or a bad thing that Cheech and Chong are paying attention to the Hawaii Legislature?

Posted on the pot-toking comedy duo’s official website this week was an alert that two Hawaii state Senate committees were preparing to hear a pair of bills that could “bring needed sensibility to Hawaii’s marijuana laws.”

Cheech and Chong (or whoever maintains the website) offered tips and talking points to their followers for submitting testimony.

It’s not completely out of the ordinary for Cheech and Chong to be tracking pro-marijuana bills here. Chong has longtime island ties.

But the comedians’ interest underscores both the potential financial benefits for Hawaii, if it ultimately follows the lead of Washington and Colorado and legalizes the recreational use of marijuana, and the fears that it could prove destructive to the state and its citizens.

Ultimately, Hawaii Senate panels were of two minds on Thursday, killing a bill to legalize marijuana — “We felt Hawaii was not ready for legalization at this time,” said Sen. Will Espero — and pushing forward legislation that calls for a fine of just $100 for possession of an ounce of pakalolo.

Arguments for and against decriminalization and legalization were on display Thursday, as supporters and opponents of reforming Hawaii’s marijuana laws filled Conference Room 224 at the Capitol.

Supporters — they included the ACLU of Hawaii and the reform-minded Drug Policy Action Group — testified that support for decriminalization or legalization of marijuana is growing, pot is a lot less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol, if legalized it will no longer profit criminals, it is a waste of law enforcement resources, it has put too many nonviolent offenders behind bars, it will help medical marijuana patients, it can be taxed and regulated to raise government revenue, and drug-reform policies are working elsewhere.

Opponents — they included three county police departments, prosecutors and the state Attorney General’s Office — testified that support for decriminalization or legalization would not be growing if people fully understood the real dangers of pot, that the latest varieties are very powerful and thus harmful, that pot is a gateway to harder stuff, that it is classified by the feds as one of our most dangerous controlled substances, that our prisons are not overcrowded with pot users, that medical marijuana is a separate matter and what is happening in Colorado and Washington is still being worked out.

Alan Shinn, executive director of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii, warned that Hawaii is not ready for legalized pot.

“It is premature to consider legalization without monitoring closely how Colorado and Washington implement their marijuana laws,” he stated in written testimony. “While the federal government has taken a ‘watch and monitor’ position on Colorado and Washington, it is clear that the two states must meet specific health and safety and other standards to avoid federal intervention. State marijuana legalization laws are still in conflict with federal laws on the production, sale, distribution, and use of marijuana.”

But Dorothy Kulik, a Kauai resident who submitted testimony online, argued, “By legalizing the drug, government can generate money through taxes. … Never in history has an incident been recorded of cannabis causing death. On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control annually reports 80,000 deaths from alcohol. Therefore, I assert it is a matter of public safety to allow people a legal opportunity to choose cannabis over alcohol.”

‘Natural, Logical, Reasonable’

The Legislature has considered similar decriminalization measures before, including just last year. Generally, they have originated on the Senate side and died in the House of Representatives.

But there is new, more progressive leadership in the House — Speaker Joe Souki, for example, just last month proposed that the state allow medical marijuana dispensaries. Attitudes toward pakalolo are changing nationally — for the first time, a majority of Americans now support legal marijuana — and presumably many in Hawaii feel the same way.

The measure that passed, Senate Bill 2358, would make possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana into an infraction that would be subject to a fine of not more than $100. No prison time would be involved.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

State Sen. Sam Slom.

The measure that failed, Senate Bill 2733, would have legalized the personal use of marijuana “in a specified quantity” and require people who operate marijuana establishments to have a license and be subject to excise taxes and income taxes.

Both pieces of legislation note that views on marijuana are evolving.

Language in SB 2358 refers to voters in Hawaii County in 2008 who decided that enforcement of cannabis ordinance should be a low priority to bolster their argument for decriminalization. (An appeals court ruled this week that the ordinance was unenforceable.) The bill also notes that the U.S. Department of Justice last year said it wasn’t going to enforce federal laws in Washington and Colorado, even though pot is a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD.

The bill continues:

Many critics of drug legalization are concerned that lifting the prohibition on illegal drugs like marijuana will increase crime and make streets less safe. However, a study released in 2011 by the nonprofit RAND Corp. indicates that just the opposite might be true: counterintuitively, stricter drug policies might actually lead to an increase in crime.
The legislature further finds that the legalization of marijuana for personal or recreational use is a natural, logical, and reasonable outgrowth of the current science of marijuana and attitudes toward marijuana.

SB 2733 makes those same points and others, including this one:

Most places that have decriminalized cannabis have civil fines, confiscation, drug education, or drug treatment in place of incarceration or criminal charges for possession of small amounts of cannabis, or have made various cannabis offenses the lowest priority for law enforcement.
The states of Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have decriminalized marijuana in small amounts. In each of these states, marijuana users no longer face arrest or jail time for the possession or use of marijuana in an amount permitted by statute.
The Legislature further finds that the legalization of marijuana for personal or recreational use is a natural, logical, and reasonable outgrowth of the current science of marijuana and attitude toward marijuana.

After the Senate committees deferred SB 2733, Teri Heede, an ardent supporter of reforming laws governing marijuana, told senators, “Please. We didn’t get legalization. Can you throw us a bone?”

Most folks in the room laughed at Heede’s remark, but the senators did indeed throw a bone by advancing SB 2358. Espero, chairman of Public Safety, said his committee would propose a change in the fine schedule, though: $100 for the first infraction, $250 for the second and $500 for a third.

The legislation, introduced by Russell Ruderman, now heads to Judiciary and Labor, where the committee’s chairman, Clayton Hee, has pushed previous efforts to enact pot decriminalization.

Hee’s committee appears poised to get enough “yes” votes to keep the bill moving forward. Sam Slom and Brickwood Galuteria, who also sit on Espero’s committee and voted to approve SB 2358, sit on the Judiciary committee. Galuteria (and Espero) are also co-sponsors of the bill along with two other Judiciary members, Les Ihara and Malama Solomon.

Majority support in Hee’s committee would send the measure to the full Senate for a vote to move the decriminalization proposal over to the House, where its fate is less certain — but perhaps a bit brighter than in years past.

Contact Chad Blair via email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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