Senate Bill 879 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday after it received testimony from supporters and opponents about its potential effects on children. 

People caught with less than one ounce would face up to a $100 fine, instead of a petty misdemeanor as they do now, under SB 879. The bill now moves to the full Senate. 

Two other decriminalization bills were rejected Thursday. Senate Bills 666 and 708 would have also decriminalized marijuana while establishing a $100 civil fine. A bill that would have reduced marijuana to a schedule II drug on a state-level was also deferred.

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Two bills to decriminalize marijuana use are still alive in the Hawaii Senate.

Another decriminalization bill similar to SB 879 is still alive in the Senate. SB 596 would also decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Just one decriminalization bill was introduced in the House, but it was never scheduled for a committee hearing.

Over a dozen marijuana decriminalization supporters spoke in favor of SB 879 Thursday, but it was opposed by law enforcement, the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office and some concerned parents.

Opponents complained that minors aren’t even mentioned in the bill, which might result in them facing no penalty if caught with pot. Sen. Will Espero said that’s not the bill’s intention, and it’s still in the early stages of the legislative process.

“This proposed bill would establish a policy that it is OK for our children to possess up to 50 marijuana joints,” James R. “Duke” Aiona, Jr., interim president and CEO of Hawaii Family Advocates, said in written testimony. Aiona was the Republican candidate for governor last year.

Capt. Jason Kawabata of the Honolulu Police Department’s Narcotics/Vice Division also worried about the implications of the bill for children, and said that it isn’t as comprehensive as it should be. HPD is not opposed to establishing a civil fine for first-time offenders, but it does want to see substance abuse counseling required as well, he said.

Kawabata added the bill should include provisions to ban smoking marijuana while at work, driving or visiting public parks — similar to alcohol open-container laws.

“We ask that you have these other laws in place first,” Kawabata said.

The Honolulu prosecutor’s office was strongly opposed to the bill. Marijuana is still a harmful, federally-controlled substance, and decriminalization wouldn’t reduce law enforcement costs as stated in the bill, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tricia Nakamatsu said.

“There is no cost saving, really,” Nakamatsu said. “There’s going to be a lot of costs associated with the civil violations as well.”

SB 879 cites a study by a University of Hawaii that estimated the state could save up to $9.3 million a year in marijuana possession enforcement costs.

Meanwhile, advocates say that decriminalization could be most beneficial to minors, because drug convictions can prevent teens from applying for student loans and making it to college.

“It’s actually youth that are impacted the most by criminal records,” said Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Action Group. “It sticks with them for the rest of their lives.”

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out in favor of decriminalizing marijuana for teens, and rescheduling marijuana as a Class II drug. They said that teens ending up with criminal records for marijuana possession does more harm than good.

Other bills still alive in the Legislature would lessen restrictions on medical marijuana, which was legalized in 2000. Bills to legalize adults’ recreational use of marijuana outright have died for this session.

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