Committee passes marijuana decriminalization bill

  • Medical marijuana grows at a North Kona site in this undated photo. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

A measure that would decriminalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana passed its first committee hearing on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 758 would increase from 3 grams to 1 ounce the minimum amount of marijuana that a defendant must possess to be charged with a petty misdemeanor. It would also permit persons previously convicted of possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana to have the conviction expunged from their criminal record.

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The proposal was taken up by the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs, which is comprised of Sens. Clarence Nishihara (D-Oahu), J. Kalani English (D-Maui), Rosalyn H. Baker (D-Maui), Gil Riviere (D-Oahu), Kurt Fevella (R-Oahu).

More than a dozen agencies, groups and individuals provided testimony is support of the measure, five testified against the bill and one, the state Judiciary, provided testimony with no position.

Providing comment in opposition to Senate Bill 758 were the Attorney General’s Office, City and County of Honolulu, Honolulu Police Department, state Department of Transportation and the Maui Police Department.

Honolulu Police Department Chief Susan Ballard and Major Phillip Wilson, of the narcotics/vice division, said the bill’s passage “would create an increased availability of marijuana, making it more accessible, especially to juveniles.”

The Maui Police Department noted that an ounce of marijuana is 28.35 grams, enough to make 40 to 50 marijuana “joints.”

“This is not simple possession. You do not carry around one ounce of marijuana for daily use. Law enforcement is not targeting medical marijuana users. We are going after people who illegally possess or distribute drugs in the State of Hawaii. Marijuana, which is still illegal (unless prescribed) should be treated as such and not minimized in the justice system,” Police Chief Tivoli S. Faaumu wrote.

Among those offering support were individual residents, Kauai’s Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the state Office of the Public Defender.

Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii Board President Nikos Leverenz said the nonprofit believes not only in decriminalizing the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, but also in reducing the fine from its current proposed level of $130, noting Virginia’s fine is a maximum $25.

“The evidence is already out there cannabis possession enforcement disproportionately impacts Native Hawaiians and ‘Filipinx’ communities, and using the UCR (Uniform Crime Reporting Program) data provided by the state Attorney General’s Office, we have over 1,000 misdemeanor cannabis arrests per year and if they’re convicted of that misdemeanor offense, there are over 100 collateral consequences that come from that,” he said. “It’s up to us, to your committee and to legislators to sort of utilize scarce law enforcement resources more wisely and this is a good measure.”

Senate Bill 758 was subsequently unanimously passed without amendments. It needs to secure a hearing before the Senate Committee on Judiciary by Friday to remain alive this legislative session.

The Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs also passed Tuesday Senate Bill 767, with amendments. SB767 seeks to legalize the personal use, possession, and sale of marijuana in a specified quantity. It would also requires licensing to operate cannabis establishments and subject sales to excise and income taxes.

Amendments Tuesday included requiring generic packaging, not making products appealing to youth, and setting limits on where advertisements can be placed and where the drug can be used as well as banning flavored e-liquids. SB 767 next needs a hearing before a joint Committee on Judiciary and Ways and Means.

The other non-medical marijuana-related bills introduced this session have seen no action since being introduced in January:

For all intents and purposes, House Bill 238, which proposed authorizing persons 21 years of age or older to possess or use limited amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes and tax retail sales of marijuana, is dead this session after failing to secure the first of its three assigned committee hearings by the Feb. 11 deadline.

Friday is the deadline for following measures referred to two committees to move to their final committee:

• House Bill 7, which would legalize the personal use, possession, and sale of marijuana in a specified quantity for those 21 and older, establish a means for licensing marijuana establishments, and subject marijuana sales to excise and income taxes would do nearly the same.

• Senate Bill 47, which would decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana or one-eighth ounce of marijuana concentrate outside of a personal residence and up to 10 ounces of marijuana or 1 ounce of marijuana concentrate inside a personal residence. It would also remove the penalty for transferring up to 1 ounce of marijuana or 5 grams of marijuana concentrate to individuals 21 and older.

• Senate Bill 704, which would legalizes the personal use, possession, and sale of marijuana in a specified quantity and would requires licensing to operate marijuana establishments. It also subjects marijuana establishments to state general excise taxes and income taxes.

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• Senate Bill 705, which would remove marijuana as a Schedule I of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act and reclassifies it as a Schedule V drug. It would also increase the amount that qualifies as a violation of third-degree promoting a detrimental drug.

• Senate Bill 1010, which would extend the time for the marijuana evaluation task force to submit its report to the Legislature and would also requires the task force to examine potential economic benefits of decriminalizing marijuana use.

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