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Hawaii Lawmakers Approve Drug Decriminalization Study

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The effort to make Hawaii the first U.S. state to consider decriminalizing all drugs just took another step forward.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor voted unanimously on Monday to approve a resolution requesting that the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau “conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of decriminalizing the illegal possession of drugs” so that it “would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense.”

The resolution was approved last month by the full House of Representatives by a vote of 37-7 and now heads to the Senate floor.

The state’s look at decriminalization comes as a growing number of world leaders and health experts are reconsidering the global war on drugs. This week, the United Nations is conducting its highest-level review of drug policies in nearly two decades. At the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, heads of state and diplomats will consider how decades-old international treaties square with the growing number of countries moving away from prohibition.

And last month, a panel of leading health experts from around the world recommended global drug decriminalization. Doing so can lead to “significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits and no significant increase in drug use,” said the commission, which was set up by leading British medical journal The Lancet and top U.S. medical school Johns Hopkins University.

The Hawaii study, which would be due later this year in preparation for the legislature’s 2017 session, would examine Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs as a possible model for the state.

In 2001, that country decriminalized all drugs, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine. While use and possession remain technically illegal, people caught with small amounts of drugs are not arrested or sent to prison. Rather, they are brought before three-member commissions that can recommend treatment or assign fines and other administrative remedies. Drug trafficking and sales are still punishable as crimes.

A 2009 Cato Institute report, cited in the Hawaii resolution, found that since decriminalization went into effect, drug use by Portuguese teenagers has dropped, as have drug-related deaths and HIV/AIDS rates among drug users. Enrollment in drug treatment is up.

“The Portuguese model referenced in the resolution shows the most dramatic evidence of the success of a public health approach,” Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Action Group, said in written testimony to the Senate committee. “By abolishing criminal penalties for possession of illegal drugs sixteen years ago, Portugal has achieved excellent results through a wide array of options: administrative sanctions, community services, drug treatment or other types of community-based rehabilitation programs. This enlightened, holistic approach has saved money, saved lives, reduced crime and improved the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.”

Lichty also pointed to the racially disparate enforcement of drug laws as a reason to consider decriminalization.

“Native Hawaiians, while using drugs at the same rate as residents of other ethnicities, are way overrepresented in Hawaii’s incarcerated populations,” she wrote.

The Senate committee slightly amended the House-passed version of the resolution, Licthy told Marijuana.com in an email. Lawmakers broadened to scope of the requested study to examine the impact on the judiciary and state government, she said.

The measure was also clarified to reflect the fact that under Hawaii law, there actually are no laws against simple possession of drugs, per se. People caught with even small amounts of drugs faces charges of possession with intent to distribute.

“Since the Hawaii Revised Statutes does not define ‘possession for personal use’ and some, any or all of the existing possession offenses could involve possession for purposes of distribution, it will not be possible to identify offenses involving possession solely for personal use, as opposed to those that involve possession for the purpose of breaking that quantity into smaller amounts for resale,” the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau testified.

The resolution’s language as revised by the Senate committee is not yet online, and a Senate floor vote has not yet been scheduled.

Photo Courtesy of Evlakhov Valeriy.

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