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Hawaii Legislature Approves Drug Decriminalization Study

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Hawaii lawmakers have voted to make their state the first in the U.S. to study decriminalizing drugs.

On Thursday, by a vote of 44 – 6, the House of Representatives gave final passage to a resolution requesting that the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau “conduct a study on the potential impact on state government 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.”

The House first approved the measure last month by a vote of 37 – 7 but, because the Senate adopted an amended version earlier this week, the House needed to sign off on the changes for final enactment.

As a concurrent resolution, the proposal does not require any action by Gov. David Ige (D) to go into effect. But, because it does not have the force of law, it merely requests that the study be done without mandating it.

The scope of the proposed study has been significantly pared back since the resolution’s introduction last month.

Whereas the original House version of the measure would have requested a study on decriminalizing all drugs, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor amended it last week to only include offenses that “pertain to the illegal possession of a harmful drug, detrimental drug, marijuana or marijuana concentrate.”

The definitions of harmful and detrimental drugs under Hawaii law refer only to substances classified in state Schedules III, IV and V, and do not include cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, psilocybin, LSD and other commonly used illegal drugs.

Hawaii’s consideration of some decriminalization comes as a growing number of world leaders and health experts are rethinking the global drug war. Last week, the United Nations held its highest-level review of drug policies since 1998. At the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS), officials from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and other nations forcefully spoke out about the failure of current policies and announced reforms.

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 lawmakers are requesting be submitted 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.

Twenty U.S. states have passed laws that decriminalize marijuana, which at a minimum remove the threat of jail time for first-time simple possession offenses.

With the Hawaii House’s action, the state is now the first to approve an official study on broader decriminalization of drugs.

Last year, legislators in Vermont’s House of Representatives introduced a measure to direct the state’s Office of Legislative Council to study a “noncriminal public health approach” to drugs, but it was never scheduled for a hearing or vote.

And this February, a Maryland lawmaker, Del. Dan Morhaim (D), introduced legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. After a hearing in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee it was defeated by a vote of 18-1.

Photo Courtesy of Evlakhov Valeriy.

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