Pubdate: Sun, 01 May 2016
Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)
Copyright: 2016 Star Advertiser
Author: Shannon Tangonan


With Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Coming Soon, the Debate Shifts to 
Decriminalizing Some Drugs

Thirteen years after Hawaii legalized medical marijuana, the state is 
finally forging ahead with licensing marijuana dispensaries, issuing 
licenses to eight applicants on Friday. As it has in other states, 
that policy shift could usher in a new era of social norms. Back in 
1973, Oregon was the first state to decriminalize small amounts of 
cannibas for recreational use. Four decades later, Oregon voters said 
yes to legalizing marijuana, as Colorado and Washington had already 
done in 2012. Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized 
marijuana possession.

It's unclear whether Hawaii will go that route. But already, at least 
a few policymakers believe the notion of decriminalizing personal use 
of marijuana - as well as other illicit drugs - and focusing more on 
treatment, is worthy of study and serious discussion.

"At first glance it comes off as a pretty radical idea" - the idea of 
decriminalizing personal drug use, said state Rep. Jarrett 
Keohokalole (D-Kaneohe, Kahaluu, Waiahole), but "things become ripe 
for discussion based on circumstances." In Hawaii, drug use often is 
an underlying factor that feeds the nation's highest per-capita rate 
of homelessness, underscoring the need to move the discussion toward 
treatment rather than imprisonment, he said.

It was Keohokalole who introduced House Concurrent Resolution 127, 
adopted Thursday, which asks the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) 
to study decriminalizing drug possession for personal use in Hawaii. 
The final version of the resolution limited the study to marijuana 
and other harmful drugs - excluding dangerous drugs such as heroin 
and methamphetamine. The resolution asks for an LRB report before the 
start of the 2017 legislative session.

HCR 127 references a 2009 Cato Institute study that reviewed drug 
decriminalization policies in Portugal, where drug use has declined 
and resources have shifted to treatment rather than incarceration.

"None of the nightmare scenarios touted by ... decriminalization 
opponents - from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to 
the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for 'drug tourists' - has 
occurred," the Cato Institute study found. Further, "by freeing its 
citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug 
usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage 
drug addicts to avail themselves to treatment."

Portugal decriminalized personal drug use in 2001 and there has been 
no serious effort to revert back to a criminalized system. Those who 
are cited for drug use or possession (with a maximum 10-day supply 
for personal use) face a noncriminal proceeding that assesses whether 
the individual should enter treatment, pay a fine or be subjected to 
community service or other restrictions. Imprisonment is no longer imposed.

In the U.S., FBI statistics show that in 2014, 83 percent of 
drug-related arrests nationwide were personal use/possession cases. 
Minorities are disproportionately represented among those arrests. In 
Hawaii, a 2014 Office of Hawaiian Affairs study found that Native 
Hawaiians made up the largest portion, or 32 percent, of those 
admitted to prison for drug offenses in 2009.

"You don't treat (addiction) by locking people up; give them the 
option to be treated," said Ken Lawson, who was a high-profile 
defense attorney in Cincinnati when he was indicted in federal court 
in Ohio on felony charges of conspiracy to obtain controlled 
substances, mainly prescription drugs.

Ironically, it was incarceration that saved Lawson. But Lawson, who 
now teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii William S. 
Richardson School of Law and is co-director of the Hawaii Innocence 
Project, said that doesn't mean decriminalization is not a worthwhile pursuit.

"No one should be criminalized initially for struggling with 
(addiction)," said Lawson, whose drug use began with a sports injury 
and eventually led to his disbarment in Ohio. "It's something that is 
worth studying" and even implementing on a "trial basis," especially 
if drug abuse is treated as a public health issue.

"If it is an illness, and it is, then why are we punishing people 
with a disease?" Lawson said.

Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of 
Hawaii, agreed that alternative approaches such as decriminalization 
do more to help people than putting them behind bars. The 
"skyrocketing number of people incarcerated and growing drug use" are 
strong indicators that the current system is not working.

The trend, from the White House down, Bergquist said, is for drug 
problems to be treated as a health issue, with more resources being 
directed toward treatment. The Drug Policy Forum believes a 
multi-pronged approach is needed to address the escalating drug 
problems in Hawaii, and that includes decriminalization.

Hawaii has an established Drug Court where first- and even 
second-time offenders are granted deferrals and their convictions are 
erased if they enroll in court-ordered programs and complete 
treatment. Although that is a step in the right direction, it is 
misguided to place the burden solely on the courts, Bergquist said.

"To lay all our eggs in that one basket around this big state and to 
assume that will work for everyone, that's really short-sighted ... 
what you need are multiple venues and outlets," Bergquist said.

THE COALITION for a Drug-Free Hawaii, which often offers an opposing 
view to the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, agrees something must be 
done to lower drug-related incarceration rates.

"We need more of a comprehensive approach - not just decriminalizing 
(personal drug use), but public education," said Alan Shinn, the 
coalition's executive director.

Ultimately, the resolution to study decriminalization is flawed, 
Shinn said, noting the Portugal model is not a panacea, and that 
Portugal's economy has suffered because of its decriminalization policy.

"One of the problems is paying for it; you have to give them 
treatment," Shinn said. "I think they're running into problems with 
their budget."

While there is no harm in studying decriminalization, a broader 
approach and other models should be looked at - not just Portugal's, 
Shinn said.

Keohokalole said he will be researching other models for 
decriminalization during the interim. But he believes that Portugal's 
model is significant because it has been in place for 15 years. Drug 
usage rates there have gone down, and the rate of overdose and 
drug-related sexually transmitted diseases also has decreased.

Applying such a model in Hawaii would have huge implications on the 
state's administrative and judicial systems.

Already, the Legislative Reference Bureau, in testimony on HCR 127, 
pointed out that Hawaii law does not define "possession for personal 
use." Acting LRB Director Charlotte Carter-Yamauchi said in written 
testimony that, "while the threshold amounts in the Hawaii Revised 
Statutes for possession may, by inference, make that distinction for 
charging purposes, that distinction may not apply for public health 
policy purposes."

The LRB also noted that Hawaii, as a state within the United States, 
faces the concurrent drug enforcement jurisdiction of not only state 
law, but federal law as well. The U.S. Department of Justice 
announced in 2013 that it would allow states to legally regulate the 
production, distribution and sale of marijuana, but it's unclear how 
decriminalizing personal use of other illicit drugs would work under 
federal law.

The intent is to study a drug policy that might counter the ill 
effects of the war on drugs, supporters contend, not a measure that 
seeks to rubber-stamp drug use.

And the message to Hawaii's youth doesn't change: "We don't stop 
saying drugs are bad," Keohokalole said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom