What’s next for marijuana in Hawaii?
Medical marijuana dispensaries? Decriminalization? Outright legalization?
All three possibilities are currently being considered by the Legislature, where 29 marijuana-related bills are in the works.
Marijuana was the subject Thursday night at a Civil Cafe featuring a panel that included state Sen. Will Espero, Alan Shinn of Drug Free Hawaii, Wendy Gibson of Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and Capt. Jason Kawabata, executive officer for HPD’s Narcotics/Vice Division.
About 60 people crowded into the Fresh Cafe in Kakaako to hear the discussion and ask questions of the panel during the event moderated by Chad Blair of Civil Beat.
“This is just the hottest topic all across the country,” Gibson said.
“Who knew 10 years ago that states would have legalized marijuana?” said Espero, referring to the fact that four states now allow recreational use of pot by adults. “And odds are those numbers are going to increase.”
While Hawaii may not be ready to become State No. 5, “I’m 99.99 percent sure that something is going to pass,” Espero said.
Hawaii was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana 15 years ago, but since then the state has lagged behind much of the rest of the country when it comes to establishing dispensaries where patients can obtain their medicine. Instead, those patients must grow their own or have a credentialed caretaker do it — or buy it illegally.
The Department of Health estimates that there are over 13,000 patients who qualify for medical marijuana in the state. Many observers expect a breakthrough this session when it comes to establishing dispensaries.
“It’s very frustrating as a nurse not to be able to help patients get their medicine.” —Wendy Gibson of Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii
Medical marijuana isn’t a new concept, Gibson and Espero pointed out. Before marijuana was made illegal in 1930s, it was used in a variety of pharmaceutical medications.
“It’s very frustrating as a nurse not to be able to help patients get their medicine,” Gibson said. “I’m truly looking forward to seeing a dispensary system here so there’s a safe and legal way to dispense medication.”
Dispensaries have been opposed by representatives of law enforcement, anti-drug activists and some nervous parents who don’t want to see marijuana become more socially acceptable and commonplace.
Shinn and Kawabata said they feared dispensaries would be taken over by big business, or “Big Marijuana.”
“We need to protect our youth from harm,” Alan Shinn said.
“Don’t assume that just because it’s a dispensary means the marijuana is safe.” — Capt. Jason Kawabata, HPD Narcotics/Vice Division
He said that there would be huge social costs with increased accessibility to marijuana. He said he preferred that medical marijuana be dispensed in pill form– through pharmaceuticals developed with therapeutic components of marijuana, and without the psychoactive side-effects.
“The mantra is to get the facts that are based on science, public health policy and common sense,” Shinn said. And according to his facts, marijuana is very addictive and can decrease the IQs of children.
Gibson disagreed. She said that she hadn’t seen any harmful effects associated with marijuana use, and that the studies Shinn cited were discredited because of inconsistencies.
“It’s a unique medicine,” Gibson said. “I’ve seen it work very well for many patients.”
Kawabata of the HPD said he supported patients having access to their medicine, but contended that dispensaries would be commercial enterprises that would try to lure youths.
“It’s all about the money, and they’re going to do whatever they can to get the youth,” Kawabata said.
He worried that people without legitimate medical conditions would abuse the dispensary system. And, he added, the illegal marijuana market could undermine dispensaries.
“I don’t believe the creation of dispensaries will make the black market go away,” Kawabata said. “And don’t assume that just because it’s a dispensary means the marijuana is safe.”
In the last couple years, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use by adults. The majority of voters in Hawaii and nationwide favor that move, according to recent polls by the Drug Policy Action Group and Gallup.
Colorado is bringing in almost $7 million in tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales every month. Those revenues totaled $43,887,483 in 2014. According to a 2012 study, legalizing marijuana in Hawaii could bring in an additional $11.3 million in tax revenue every year, while saving another $3 million in judicial and enforcement costs.
Civil Beat recently editorialized in favor of the Legislature either legalizing marijuana or allowing voters to decide, although neither move is expected this session.
Opponents say legalization could put more of a dangerous gateway drug into the hands of minors. They worried that people might accidentally ingest marijuana products.
However, everyone on the panel agreed that any high-schooler can find marijuana now.
“The thing is, we already do have ‘Big Marijuana.’ It’s the black market,” Gibson said. “It’s an unregulated industry, and what we want to do is regulate it.”
“We want to do it right, we don’t want to be criticized,” Espero said. “We want to come out of it saying, ‘see, we were right.'”
Most members of the audience seemed to support outright legalization. One man said he was more scared of the cartels running illegal drug operations than the consequences that legalizing marijuana would have on Hawaii’s communities.
Kawabata and Shinn weren’t convinced.
“I don’t think (legalization is) inevitable,” Shinn said. “There may be other alternatives we need to explore.”
He was especially concerned about marijuana edibles, and said that two people died as a result of consuming marijuana in Colorado. One person jumped off a building, and the other person shot his girlfriend, Shinn said.
Audience members pointed out that people do those things sober, too.
Hawaii legislators are also considering the decriminalization option this legislative session, which would make marijuana offenses less severe without legalizing recreational use.
It’s estimated that approximately 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana law violations in 2012 alone, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Those arrests make up almost half of all drug arrests in the United States.
“At the end of the day, we have to look at what’s going on nationally and internationally.” — State Sen. Will Espero
Advocates say that in addition to saving thousands of people from criminal records, decriminalization can save states millions of dollars in judicial and enforcement costs. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by a UH-Manoa estimated that Hawaii law enforcement agencies spent $9,300,000 to enforce marijuana laws in 2011.
Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana.
Kawabata said that the Honolulu Police Department didn’t reject the concept of decriminalization. However, he said current proposed legislation doesn’t address drug treatment programs.
Shinn said the decriminalization bills don’t apply to minors, which he said was unfair.
“How about the youth?” Shinn said. “Their lives can be affected if they’re arrested for small amounts.”
Paul Minar, a member of the audience, said he had been arrested for growing six marijuana plants to treat his back pain because he didn’t have access to medical marijuana.
“They didn’t put me in jail, but they cost me $50,000,” Minar said. “People are not arrested and put in jail, you’re arrested and put in the court system.”
“At the end of the day, we have to look at what’s going on nationally and internationally,” Espero said. “And we do believe that marijuana dispensaries are going to be a great benefit to those who need it and entrepreneurs.”
Here’s a summary of marijuana-related bills as they stood Thursday. Friday is the deadline for bills to reach the final committee to which they’ve been referred:
HB31, medical marijuana discrimination: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB321, dispensaries: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB157, addresses drug definitions and potency: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB372, decriminilization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB717, legalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB788, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB794, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB795, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB841, legalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB889, legalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
HB993, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB189, decriminalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB596, decriminalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB682, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB1291, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB1302, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB190, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB383, legalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB595, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB666, decriminalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB708, decriminalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB873, legalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB879, decriminalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB888, compassion centers: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB1019, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB1029, medical marijuana: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
SB1259, legalization: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/