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Hawaii Weighs Study on Decriminalizing All Drugs

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A group of Hawaii lawmakers wants their state to consider becoming the first in the U.S. to decriminalize all drugs.

A resolution being heard Thursday by the state’s House Judiciary Committee says that “despite a longstanding policy that enforces illicit drug prohibition and imposes some of the world’s harshest penalties for drug possession and sales, illicit drug use in the United States has been increasing.”

The measure, if passed by both chambers of the legislature, would request 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.”

The 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, Portugal 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.

“The positive results from Portugal’s drug decriminalization system provides a potential model for more effectively managing drug-related problems in the United States,” reads the resolution, which is sponsored by Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole and four other House members, all Democrats.

Last year, legislators in Vermont’s House of Representatives introduced a similar 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.

Last month, a Maryland legislator, 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 last week by a vote of 18-1.

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.

Although no state has yet removed criminal penalties for possession of other illegal drugs, advocates say the introduction of legislation in a growing number of states has started an important conversation about how substance misuse should be treated.

“Arresting people with substance abuse issues and saddling them with a criminal record has been a policy failure,” Theshia Naidoo, a senior staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana.com in an email. “These bills are an encouraging first step and a recognition that we must end the era of criminalizing what is essentially a health issue.”

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