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Hawaii Lawmakers OK Study on Decriminalizing Drugs

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Lawmakers in Hawaii have advanced a proposal to study whether the state should decriminalize all drugs.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 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 for personal use in Hawaii” so that such conduct “would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense.”

It now heads to the House floor, where a vote could come as soon as this week.

Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Action Group, was in attendance at the committee hearing and told Marijuana.com that the resolution was slightly amended to limit the scope of the proposed study by the Legislative Reference Bureau to only those drug offenses that are a C class felony or below.

Charlotte A. Carter-Yamauchi, the bureau’s acting director, had testified that conducting a top-to-bottom review of all the state’s drug penalties could “prove to be overwhelming.”

Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana.com that advocates are “very excited” to see the proposal moving forward.

“This study comes at a time when our state’s lawmakers and those around the country are having a double awakening regarding the failed War on Drugs,” he said. “At the the same time that the system of mass incarceration and criminalization is being repudiated, people are finally beginning to see drug users as patients in need of treatment and not prisoners to be locked up. Studying and ultimately changing these laws marks the beginning. It is great to see Hawai’i blaze the trail.”

The same day the Hawaii committee voted to approve the study resolution, 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 House 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.

As a concurrent resolution, the Hawaii proposal would not need the support of Gov. David Ige (D). But, because it would not have the force of law, it merely requests that the study be done without mandating it.

According to the state’s legislative calendar, the resolution needs to pass the House and cross over to the Senate by next Thursday, April 7 in order to have a chance of being enacted this year.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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