WAILUKU - When the 2010 legislative session opened Wednesday, no fewer than 20 bills to reform Hawaii's marijuana laws were lined up for discussion.
However, Maui County Police Chief Gary Yabuta said he believes measures, especially those proposed by two Maui lawmakers, would send the wrong message to kids and damage neighborhoods.
With a $1.2 billion state budget shortfall, it remains to be seen whether the Legislature will find time for a potentially prolonged debate over loosening drug laws - even if proponents say the measures will save the state millions in law enforcement spending and create new tax revenue.
Pot is a harmful, gateway drug for youths
South Maui Rep. Joe Bertram III and Sen. J. Kalani English - who represents Upcountry, East Maui, Lanai and Molokai - said the most substantial bills in the hopper would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and legalize medical-marijuana dispensaries.
English's medical-marijuana dispensary bill, which he co-sponsored, already passed on first reading Thursday. He will introduce his decriminalization bill today, said English's committee clerk, Sharon Lum Ho.
"As for marijuana decriminalization, our youth are faced with the challenge of making the right choices in a very complex world," Yabuta wrote in an e-mail to The Maui News.
For elected officials to make marijuana seem more acceptable than ever in Hawaii, by essentially removing it from the state's list of illegal drugs, would make it harder for police officers to do their jobs and for young people to make healthy lifestyle choices, Yabuta said.
"Simply put, proponents consider marijuana a harmless drug. We consider it to be both harmful during youth development and a gateway drug, where young users are more apt to experiment with harder drugs with unimaginable addictive qualities," Yabuta said.
English's 18-page bill would decriminalize possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana and dub the act "the lowest police priority." The proposal would not apply to dealers or people driving under the influence of marijuana.
Marijuana would remain illegal, but those caught by police with it would face a civil fine of no more than $100, much like traffic citations, according to the bill. English wants the fines to be funneled to prevention programs that help at-risk families through an assortment of early-childhood and anti-abuse initiatives.
These are tough economic times, and English said he would not be endorsing these bills without that extra push.
"The benefits of establishing a civil violation for the possession of small amounts of marijuana far outweigh the costs and benefits of the current criminal treatment of this offense," English wrote in his bill, which has companion House legislation co-authored by Bertram last year that remains active.
Eighteen states, which include individual cities and counties, have marijuana decriminalization laws for 1 ounce or less. States with the largest populations, New York and California, have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, English said. And it has proved to work, he said.
English added that he will co-sponsor a bill introduced last year by Leeward Oahu Sen. Will Espero and carried over to this session. The bill would follow California's lead and legalize dispensaries for medical marijuana. Counties would regulate the private dispensaries, much as they do liquor establishments.
Medical marijuana - prescribed by a doctor for chronic or terminal diseases, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS - has been legal in Hawaii for nearly 10 years.
"Ironically, it appears that both Senator English and law enforcement, such as the Maui Police Department, use California's 'lead' to exemplify our opposing views of legalized medical-marijuana dispensaries," Yabuta said. "Senator English's impression is that these dispensaries are selling marijuana exclusively to medical-marijuana patients. However, our police colleagues in California share a much different view.
"In California, what may be perceived to be a medical-marijuana dispensary is probably no more than a storefront for marijuana, with or without a prescription," said Yabuta, who consulted with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office. "In my opinion, the decree of treating only those patients requiring prescribed marijuana for medical benefit does not exist in California's medical-marijuana dispensaries, and the damage that these dispensaries have imposed on surrounding neighborhoods are evident. Rural and tranquil communities, very much like Maui, have been erased from what once was, and are now plagued with a marijuana-driven culture that has manifested violence."
Yabuta pointed out he has not seen California's budget woes solved by relaxed marijuana laws.
Bertram and English said setting aside the issue to focus on the budget deficit would be a mistake. Marijuana law reform is part of the budget solution, they said.
California, although admittedly much larger in population, still rakes in about $50 million annually in dispensary sales taxes, Bertram said.
"What we're talking about is solving the budget crisis," Bertram said. "Every bit helps."
The national marijuana-advocacy group, NORMAL, estimated Hawaii had $750 million worth of cannabis sales in 2005.
English said the state spends $6.2 million annually to enforce marijuana laws and for court costs - not to mention the $88,000 a year required to house an inmate. And Hawaii prisons are full, he added.
English also alleged that marijuana-enforcement laws are not effective. A 2007 University of Hawaii-West Oahu study on decriminalizing marijuana concluded that only about 2 percent of regular marijuana users "risk arrest," and that the chance of a marijuana user being arrested and convicted is only 0.4 percent.
"It can be a very important source of revenue, with money coming in and money not going out (for prosecuting offenders)," Bertram said. "It's wonderful."
The current medicinal-marijuana law is not realistic for patients, who are forced to become criminals, Bertram said.
Most people don't have the knowledge and experience - or the three months and physical labor it takes - to grow the seven plants of marijuana permitted by current law. Cardholders are allowed to have in their home 7 ounces of the dried plant.
"Just prohibiting things doesn't stop it. We learned that from Prohibition, where the black market and criminal syndicates flourished," Bertram said. "It's the prohibition that creates violence. But if you have a hold on it, you can regulate it, and you make some money off of it."
Many nations across the globe have learned that lesson, he said. And the Obama administration has been paying attention, both Bertram and English said.
Early last year, the Obama administration instituted a "hands-off" policy regarding medical marijuana and backed off the Bush administration policy of using federal law-enforcement agents to raid dispensaries.
However, the U.S. Department of Justice continues to list marijuana as an illegal drug, and the Hawaii Department of Public Safety still enforces those laws. A spokesman for Gov. Linda Lingle did not respond to a request seeking comment.
"All this negative stuff about cannabis was just invented to get people to believe this is poison," Bertram said. "I don't blame them (law-enforcement officials). A lot of their funding relies on it, but some laws are not right. They don't produce the results we are looking for; so we need to adjust them. That's what we're doing."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at chamilton@maui news. com.