WAILUKU - Hawaii could see an increase in crime and other economic fallout if it legalizes medical marijuana dispensaries and softens medical marijuana laws, two Los Angeles police officers warned Wednesday.
"It's so bad in L.A.," said Sgt. Eric Bixler of the Narcotics Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. He said law enforcement officials there deal daily with the effects of California's Proposition 215, which allows patient caregivers to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use. People driving while smoking, and teens buying marijuana at dispensaries to resell on the street are just some of the problems caused by the law, the officers said.
Bixler and another Los Angeles officer were among the presenters at a Hawaii Medical Marijuana Summit offered Wednesday for law enforcement and other community members at Baldwin High School's multipurpose room. They appeared on behalf of the California Narcotic Officers' Association that trains law enforcement officials in narcotic enforcement activities.
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Medical marijuana proponents say a puff off a joint helps them cope with ailments from cancer to back pain to insomnia.
The Hawaii State Legislature this year is considering several proposals that would loosen marijuana restrictions, including proposals that would allow the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries.
Upcountry, East Maui, Molokai and Lanai Sen. J. Kalani English, who was among the lawmakers to introduce bills to loosen restrictions on marijuana, said his bills were different from California's medical marijuana laws because he was aware of some of the problems attributed to Proposition 215. He said he took the "best" features of medical marijuana legislation across the country to craft proposals that would have stricter controls on the drug and avoid pitfalls seen in other jurisdictions.
English's bills, one of which would legalize and tax dispensaries as a way of generating revenue for the state, and the other of which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, have passed from the Senate to the House for discussion.
English objected to the summit, saying the meeting only represented the views of medical marijuana opponents and was based only on the views of the Los Angeles Police Department. He felt that event organizers should have invited people with a variety opinions for a real dialogue about the issue.
"This whole thing is repugnant," he said. "What they are trying to do is skew what we are trying to do here."
English said he met with officials from all four Hawaii county police departments this week, and that all agreed that patients with serious illnesses should have access to marijuana, if they need it, but that they didn't want others to abuse medical marijuana laws.
Most of the presentations Wednesday were set to focus on Proposition 215, which was passed by California voters in 1996. The law allows patients and their caregivers with a valid doctor's approval to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use. It also protects a system of collective and cooperative cultivation and distribution of marijuana.
Because the meeting was closed to journalists, Bixler and Detective Glenn Walsh of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Narcotics Division spoke to reporters outside the room.
Bixler said it's not uncommon to see someone "smoking out" while driving down the street, and that he has seen teenagers walk out of dispensaries with marijuana and sell the drug to their friends.
"We have more (marijuana) dispensaries than Starbucks," Walsh added, saying Los Angeles alone has around 900 to 1,000 dispensaries.
The two officers said there are many misconceptions about Proposition 215, including that it allows medical marijuana "dispensaries."
Some people have opened up dispensaries by claiming to be caregivers, they said.
Bixler said dispensaries or self-described "compassion centers" are actually "storefront marijuana dealers."
Walsh dismissed advocates' claims that legalizing and taxing marijuana could be a potential source of revenue for states, saying other vice taxes, such as those levied on alcohol and cigarettes, do not offset the greater cost of social problems to the community.
He noted that, nationwide, the federal government and states collected a combined $14.5 billion in taxes on alcohol in 2007, compared with a cost of $185 billion for alcohol-related health care, lost productivity and law enforcement, according to statements by the National Drug Control Policy Director R. Gil Kerlikowske.
For tobacco, about $25 billion is collected in taxes each year, compared with $200 billion in social costs, Walsh added, citing Kerlikowske's report.
Both officers expressed concern that English's bill, if passed, would allow Hawaii's four counties to each establish their own laws governing dispensaries. Walsh and Bixler said that a lack of consistency from county to county made it difficult to enforce the law.
For example, a dealer could purchase the drug somewhere like Mendocino County, which allows citizens to possess up to 2 pounds of dried marijuana, and then take it to other counties to sell.
English didn't think that would be a problem in Hawaii if his bill became law.
Under his proposal, the amount of medical marijuana a patient could possess would be the same across all counties, because the amount is established by state law.
But he said he believed that, in the spirit of "home rule," the county governments should be able to decide how to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries within their jurisdiction, such as where the dispensaries could be located, when they could operate, and how they could be inspected.
There are already around 6,000 medical marijuana patients in Hawaii, he noted.
Taxing medical marijuana at a rate of $30 per ounce as he proposes could net the state around $60 million in new revenues each year, he said; and English proposes splitting the take between the state and counties.
Asked to respond to the criticism that products like cigarettes and alcohol cause more costs and negative social impacts than they generate revenue in vice taxes, English said most of the studies he's seen found that "it's neutral."
English said he used information from the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and its studies for crafting his bill. The forum found Hawaii state and county governments could reap up to $33 million annually in new revenues and cost savings if tax and regulatory policies were to replace law enforcement to control marijuana distribution.
The report by Lawrence W. Boyd, an economist at University of Hawaii West Oahu, said there is either no relationship or a weak positive relationship between decriminalization and drug use. It said that, given the current low prosecution rates and small penalties, it's doubtful that decriminalization would have much effect on marijuana use in Hawaii.
English said he didn't see much difference between marijuana and legal drugs, such as oxycodone and codeine in Tylenol.
"There is abuse of that too. There is social cost with that too," he said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji @mauinews.com.