Advocates for decriminalizing marijuana and drug paraphernalia think this may be the year the Hawaii Legislature takes action.
But Gov. David Ige doesn’t want to pass new laws regarding marijuana until the state’s medical marijuana dispensaries get up and running.
It’s been 17 years since Hawaii started allowing medical marijuana patients to grow their own cannabis plants. And last year, the state awarded licenses to eight companies to grow medical marijuana and sell it at dispensaries, some of which are expected to open this year.
But it’s still illegal to possess marijuana if you’re not a certified patient, and even having less than an ounce of it could send you to jail for up to a month. Getting caught with drug paraphernalia can also land you a felony conviction.
With the 2017 legislative session kicking off, there are several bills to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia and marijuana — or even legalize the drug for recreational use. Sen. Russell Ruderman and Rep. Richard Creagan, both from the Big Island, also introduced measures to allow individual counties to legalize the drug.
While several lawmakers say that outright legalization is still a few years away, measures to turn marijuana and paraphernalia possession into a civil offense may get more support this year because of concerns about overcrowding at local jails and prisons.
Advocates are likely to find strong support in the Senate. In 2013, the Senate unanimously voted to make possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense. That bill got derailed in the House, but there are signs that the House may be more open to the issue this session.
Gov. David Ige, who was then a senator, voted in favor of it. But Ige has since changed his mind, according to his spokeswoman, Yasmin Dar.
“The governor opposes the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia and marijuana until the medical marijuana dispensaries open and we get a chance to gauge the impact upon the state,” she wrote in an email last week. She said Ige wasn’t available for a phone interview.
That doesn’t deter Sen. Will Espero, a longtime proponent of decriminalizing marijuana who is behind a bill to make the use, possession and delivery of drug paraphernalia a civil offense. He says he’s hopeful that Ige will change his mind if there’s enough support from the public and the Legislature.
“I’m hoping that if we can get a bill to the governor he will reconsider his comments about not supporting it,” Espero said. “This is an issue that goes back years and transcends the dispensaries.”
Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons says that she’s saddened by the governor’s statement and thinks it shows a lack of awareness of what’s happened in other states.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization seeking to legalize cannabis, 21 states and Washington, D.C., offer alternatives to incarceration for people caught possessing small amounts of marijuana.
In those states, “The sky hasn’t fallen,” said Brady.
There’s also the question of cost. The price of keeping a low-level offender in a Hawaii jail is $140 per day.
Ige is under pressure to decrease overcrowding at local jails and prisons, which are operating at double their capacity.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a complaint with the Justice Department about substandard conditions in Hawaii’s prisons.
Ige wants the Legislature to give him $9 million to expand the women’s prison and is considering building a new jail to replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi.
“It’s absurd when the governor is pushing a huge new jail to not even look at other strategies that could safely reduce the population,” Brady said. “I find that almost unbelievable.”
The Department of Public Safety spends tens of millions every year to lock up low-level drug offenders, but it’s hard to get specific data on marijuana violations and how much those are costing the state.
Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the agency, provided data showing nearly 2,500 people were in prison or jail for drug-related offenses last year, but cautioned that the data may include people who were charged with multiple drug offenses and isn’t limited to marijuana.
“Marijuana can fall under many categories for drug charges,” Schwartz wrote in an email, adding: “Also, there are no charges in Hawaii law that have a specific drug in the name … except for meth.”
Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said in testimony for a bill that was proposed in 2015 that it’s “actually very rare” for someone caught with less than an ounce of marijuana to spend time in jail, “aside from any possible holding-time while a defendant awaits their first hearing.”
A spokesman for Kaneshiro said the prosecutor maintains the same position that he did two years ago, when he joined local police departments to strongly oppose decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“If S.B. 666 is allowed to pass, not only will the courts lose all of those options entirely, but the Legislature will essentially be sending a message to the public — and to Hawaii’s youth — that illegal possession of this controlled substance is significantly less egregious than crossing a white line while driving, using a turn signal for at least 100 feet before turning right or left, or practically any other traffic infraction currently in law,” Kaneshiro testified.
Many residents have also testified against marijuana decriminalization in the past out of concern that it would harm children.
Sen. Josh Green’s decriminalization bill seeks to address these concerns by imposing a fine for possessing it on school property.
From Green’s perspective, this is the “logical” time to decriminalize the drug.
“That’s the direction society is going,” he said.
Green said he’s confident that the proposal will pass the Senate again. The House may be a harder sell, but he’s still hopeful.
“It’s not an election year and we tend to do more substantive legislation in non-election years,” Green said. “I think that this is the year that people can be more comfortable taking up social policy.”
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said that while he doesn’t see the House voting to legalize marijuana outright use this year, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana makes sense to him.
“The prison management issue is forcing everyone to look at all of the reasons why our jails and prisons are overcrowded,” Saiki said, noting that sometimes minor drug offenders cannot post bail.
Carl Bergquist, who leads the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and is a strong advocate for decriminalization, is heartened by the fact that House Speaker Joe Souki has introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana and it has been referred to only the Judiciary Committee.
Generally, bills that receive fewer committee referrals have a better chance of passing a chamber.
Rep. Scott Nishimoto, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s reviewing the bills referred to his committee and hasn’t decided yet which measures to hold hearings for.
He said he’d like to hear the bills related to decriminalizing marijuana and drug paraphernalia, since he hasn’t done so before. He said he’s reserving judgment on the issue until after he hears public testimony.
The Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, is already on board with the idea and introduced three bills to legalize and tax marijuana, decriminalize its possession and also decriminalize drug paraphernalia.
San Buenaventura said decriminalizing the possession of paraphernalia is especially important because she’s heard from dispensary licensees who are concerned about being vulnerable to felony charges regarding the containers used for medical marijuana.
“It’s really kind of ridiculous,” she said. “I believe it is about time and I believe it is easier for the medical marijuana dispensaries to be able to dispense without a Class C felony hanging over their heads for merely bottling this stuff.”
Like Green, she thinks the fact it’s not an election year gives her proposals a better chance.
“People are freer to do what is right rather than what is popular,” she said. The cost-cutting argument for decriminalization also resonates with her.
“Frankly with the fiscal problems this session, Aloha Stadium, OCCC, the hospital, rail … with less than 3 percent growth in taxes, now more than ever we need monies to balance the budget,” she said.
But even if San Buenaventura can get her fellow House representatives on board, Ige’s position looms as an obstacle.
Bergquist says he’s surprised by Ige’s stance. He said waiting to see how the dispensary issue plays out doesn’t make sense given that dispensaries have a different policy goal than decriminalizing marijuana.
He notes that having a felony conviction for possessing drug paraphernalia and marijuana can make it difficult for people to find jobs and housing.
“We truly appreciate the governor’s support for the medical cannabis programs and those long-suffering patients, but we strongly believe that it is way past time for Hawaii to join a soon-majority of other states who have already decriminalized adult cannabis use,” Bergquist said.