Legalize it. Regulate it. And tax the heck out of it.

More than half of Hawaii voters want the state to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington and make recreational marijuana legal for adults, a new poll shows.

But they don’t want the state’s pot reform efforts to end there. The survey also shows surging support for establishing medical marijuana dispensaries and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pakalolo.

The Drug Policy Action Group, partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, recently commissioned QMark Research to do a study. That poll of 600 Hawaii voters, conducted between Nov. 19 and Dec. 4, 2012, revealed these key findings:

  • 78 percent support a dispensary system for medical marijuana
  • 69 percent think jail time for marijuana offenses is inappropriate
  • 57 percent favor legalized, taxed and regulated marijuana (a 20 percent jump from the last poll, conducted in 2005).

“We hope this will spark a broader and wider and deeper conversation on how Hawaii can benefit from further reforming its marijuana laws,” ACLU Executive Director Vanessa Chong said at a press conference Thursday in Honolulu. “And the fact that so many other states now are changing their laws indicates that the time is right for Hawaii to take a fresh look at how we’re using valuable taxpayer dollars for law enforcement.”

Colorado and Washington passed citizen initiatives last election to legalize recreational marijuana. At least five other states are anticipating legislation this year to decriminalize or legalize pot.

The Drug Policy Action Group, which advocates for non-punitive drug policies that minimize costs, also commissioned a study on the economic impacts of Hawaii’s drug laws.

That report, penned by University of Hawaii economist and public policy professor David Nixon, found the state could save millions of dollars through various reforms.

His study says decriminalizing pot could help Hawaii recapture $9 million annually by freeing up law enforcement resources, and another $3 million if marijuana was simply regulated like alcohol. If pot was taxed, the state could pull in an extra $11.3 million annually, the study found, although it would be up to the Legislature to determine how much to tax the drug.

“We feel certain that the factual information that we presented will be of great use to both lawmakers and citizens as we decide how to move forward with new approaches to our marijuana laws, which a majority of our voters feel are not working,” said Pamela Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, a sister organization of the Drug Policy Action Group.

State lawmakers said they weren’t surprised by the new poll results and plan to see a plethora of pot bills next legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said Hawaii’s medical marijuana law needs reformed, but he stopped short of supporting the creation of a dispensary system.

He said he favors amending the law to make it clear that it’s OK to transport medical cannabis within the state, and specifying where patients can get pot seeds.

Espero said dispensaries are an important topic in Hawaii, where you can only get medical marijuana by growing it yourself. But he said he didn’t think there would be anything next session on dispensaries.

“We need to discuss dispensaries more,” he said. “I’m not aware of any model nationally that has been perfect.”

Espero said public opinion in Hawaii appears to be following the national trend.

“It appears public support and attitudes are changing more favorable for medical cannabis and decriminalization,” he said. “I think legalization is still a few years away.”

The Senate passed a measure last year decreasing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana, making it a civil fine like a traffic ticket. But the bill stalled in the House.

Sen. Clayton Hee, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said making it a civil penalty makes sense. He said it keeps Hawaii in line with the general trends of the rest of the country.

But he stopped short of supporting legalization. Hee said the poll numbers suggest there may be a growing critical mass that the Legislature should be sensitive to.

“Do I think we should consider it? The place to consider all ideas is the Legislature,” he said.

On the medical marijuana end, Hee said establishing dispensaries would follow state policy.

“It seems reasonable to me that if there’s a statute that allows for medical marijuana, that a dispensary is part of the process of using of medical marijuana,” he said.

As chair of the Health Committee, Sen. Josh Green said he is willing to hear any proposals. He said he continues to support medical marijuana as long as it’s used safely.

Hawaii passed its medical marijuana law in 2000. There are now 18 states plus the District of Columbia that have a similar law on the books.

The Honolulu Police Department, on the other hand, remains opposed to making Hawaii a more pot-friendly state, whether it’s legalization, decriminalization or medical use.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu released this statement listing the reasons:

  • Research has linked frequent marijuana use with an increase in violent behavior.
  • Legalizing marijuana would increase its availability and the public’s willingness to use the drug. 
  • Marijuana has high potential for abuse and addiction, creating a need for treatment programs and other assistance.
  • Existing medical marijuana dispensaries in California have brought an increase in burglaries, robberies, homicides, money laundering, firearms violations, and drug dealing.
  • As far as medicinal use, marijuana is classified as a federal Schedule 1 controlled substance with no commonly accepted medical use.  The average THC concentration has increased significantly over the years, and there are no controls on potency and dosage. Further, a synthetic form of THC is already legally available by prescription.

Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro declined to comment on the poll results at this time. He is on record as opposing the legalization of marijuana.

Check out the poll here:

Read the economic impact study here:

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