Bill to decriminalize pot use criticized

HILO — A hearing on a bill that would abolish nearly all criminal penalties relating to marijuana drew concern Tuesday about the potential side effects of legalization.

Senate Bill 606 is only one of several proposals to loosen or remove state prohibitions on recreational marijuana currently in the state Legislature. However, SB 606 is more bold than most other bills, as it would remove all criminal penalties regarding marijuana save one, and if passed would expunge the criminal record of any incident relating solely to marijuana.

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The sole marijuana-related offense that would still exist under SB 606 is the promotion of marijuana to a minor, a new offense added by the bill that would be a Class B felony.

During a hearing before the Hawaii Senate Committee on Public Safety Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, lawmakers heard statements from members of the public and government agencies about the proposed bill. Opinions were mixed.

Honolulu prosecuting attorney Tricia Nakamatsu was firmly against the bill, saying that it appears to be motivated by a false premise.

“I am concerned about what prompted this bill,” Nakamatsu said, explaining that few marijuana offenders face significant jail time unless they cannot post bail. The concerns of the bill’s proponents, who Nakamatsu said are worried that the state over-punishes marijuana offenders, are “simply not true,” she said.

Beyond the bill’s motivation, Nakamatsu found the language of the bill wanting. For example, Nakamatsu pointed out that while the bill criminalizes distributing marijuana to minors, it does not raise the possibility of marijuana-related penalties for the minors themselves. And if marijuana-related incidents are no longer criminal offenses, then minor offenders would not be able to avail themselves of rehabilitative resources made available through family courts.

Nakamatsu also said the proposed process for expunging prior marijuana offense records is ambiguous and clashes with existing methods for expungement.

Meanwhile, Marshall Ando, engineering program manager for the Department of Transportation, said legalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in traffic crashes and fatalities. Ando said Colorado saw a precipitous increase in traffic fatalities since that state legalized the substance in 2012.

While nobody proffered verbal testimony in support of the bill at Tuesday’s hearing, written testimony was more favorable. Several citizens wrote in support of legalization, as did the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, which argued that criminalization of marijuana disproportionately harms the state’s Native Hawaiian and Filipino communities.

“It is therefore of the essence that any legalization program include the types of social justice policies pioneered in other states, and represented in this bill by the expungement provisions,” wrote Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum.

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SB 606 is one of the first marijuana bills this session to reach a public hearing. House Bill 1383, which would decriminalize certain offenses and expunge prior marijuana criminal records, was similarly contentious at a hearing on Monday, while SB 686, which would legalize for personal use small amounts of marijuana, drew hundreds of pages in support and opposition on Jan. 31.

Committees will decide the fates of HB 1383 and SB 686 on Friday. No decision about SB 606 has yet been made.