With House Bill 107 on the deck, our state Legislature is an excellent position to make 2017 the year that Hawaii joins 22 other states and the District of Columbia decriminalizing the possession of cannabis (marijuana). A bill is even moving through the Texas Legislature.

Turning possession into a civil rather than a criminal offense, makes sense for the state’s coffers, aligns with our moral compass and most importantly, it will make a huge difference for the individuals who will no longer be saddled with a criminal record that can ruin their lives.

Decriminalization of cannabis is exactly the type of policy, a reform rooted in social justice that states like Hawaii can and should adopt at this critical juncture. As our elected officials have said repeatedly, this is a moment for states to pave the way forward.

Given the plethora of issues in Hawaii’s criminal justice system — and the increasing realization that decriminalization can be beneficial for public health purposes — making adult possession of small amounts of cannabis a civil violation can be a simple beginning to broader reform.

To that effect, in 2016 the Legislature requested that the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) study the potential effects of decriminalization of certain drugs, including cannabis. While the recently released LRB study points out that the police and judiciary need to collect more data, it makes some calculations based on the fact that it costs the state $140 per day to imprison a suspect pre-trial or an inmate post-conviction.

Based on that rate, if each of the 792 adult and 405 juvenile arrestees for cannabis possession in 2014 spent just one day in jail, and many stay longer due to the inability to post bail, decriminalization could save the state over $165,000.

But those are just direct savings related to the prisons, i.e. they do not include police enforcement or judicial adjudication costs. In other states, those costs rise to hundreds of dollar per person.

Finally, if you add the fines that that are to be collected for the new violation, it seems clear that the windfall could be significant. Further, decriminalization eliminates the denials of student loans, jobs, as well as for immigrants, possible deportation for this minor offense.

The recent Interim Report of the HCR85 Task Force on Effective Incarceration Polices and Improving Hawaii’s Correctional System lists reducing penalties for nonviolent drug offenses as one of many proven best practices that states can employ. That is exactly the crux of decriminalization.

At root, the criminalization of cannabis possession both federally and here in the Aloha State relies on laws passed during the height of the War on Drugs. President Nixon’s counsel and chief domestic advisor John Erlichman is on record as saying that the criminalization of certain drugs including cannabis aimed to “disrupt communities” rather address an actual threat to health or safety.

Irrespective of the intent of Congress or our state legislators, the enforcement of these laws have been shown to have serious, disparate impacts. In Hawaii, Native Hawaiians represent 26.5 percent of adult cannabis possession arrests and 33 percent of juvenile arrests. This despite, as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has reported, that the usage of cannabis among Native Hawaiians is comparable to the groups.

African Americans adults in Hawaii are arrested at a rate over two and a half times the size of the share of the population.

A criminal law is meant to convey a society’s moral condemnation of an act, attach stigma to it and then mete out punishment. Let us honestly ask ourselves: do we as a state want to keep criminalizing the possession of small amounts of a drug that we were among the very first to recognize as a legitimate medicine back in 2000? And how can we criminalize cannabis when other demonstrably more dangerous drugs like tobacco and alcohol are legal, regulated and viewed as legitimate ways to wind down at the end of the day?

There are many defenses of the status quo out there — from the fear of a federal crackdown, to protecting our keiki and waiting for the medical cannabis dispensaries to open. Having recently sued President Trump over one of his immigration executive orders despite his explicit threats to cut funding, why be ruled by fear rather than by Hawaii’s own principles and interests in the criminal justice domain? As decriminalization, and even legalization, occurs across the country, studies show that teen use is down.

Finally, it is hard to see any connection whatsoever between the public health issues at stake with medical cannabis on the one hand, and a criminal and social justice reform like decriminalization on the other.

Fortified by experience of the 20 plus states that have decriminalized cannabis and the 70 percent support (over 80 percent on the Neighbor Islands) this approach has here at home, Hawaii is clearly ready to move forward.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

About the Author