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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Maui lawmaker looks to reform marijuana laws

By Chris Hamilton
The Maui News

State Sen. J. Kalani English will probably grab a few headlines when he introduces two bills in the legislative session this week: one to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries and the other to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

His marijuana reformation bills are modeled after laws already in place in other states. On Friday, the Democrat who represents Upcountry, East Maui, Lanai and Molokai said his motives are at once pragmatic, moralistic and economic.

The measures would free up law enforcement to focus on hard drug traffickers and help the state deal with Hawaii's fiscal year 2011 $1.2 billion budget shortfall on a number of fronts, English pointed out. He said he wasn't certain how much new revenue or costs savings, including for courts and jails, the proposals would make, but he was sure it would be significant.

On Friday, English said that he intends to follow California's lead by legalizing - and taxing - medical marijuana dispensaries to generate revenue. A dispensary is a private, secure facility where people with medical marijuana cards, which have been legal and available in Hawaii for almost a decade, can purchase marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Proponents say the dispensaries provide a safe environment to sell a legal product that provides real relief for those suffering from pain and nausea caused by diseases such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

"To own a dispensary, you would have to have a permit, and then you'd be taxed a flat rate right there," English said. "There'd also be a general excise tax (for purchases).

"My point is we already legalized medical marijuana, so we should allow the counties to (regulate) the dispensaries . . . (President Barack) Obama directed the Department of Justice to honor states' rights, as it should be. It's a complete reversal of the previous doctrine that the federal trumps the states."

His bills for Hawaii are the logical extension of what's already happened here and the changing attitudes toward marijuana, or cannabis, across the nation and world, he said.

Early last year, the Obama administration instituted a "hands off" policy when it comes to medical marijuana and backed off his predecessor's policy of using federal law enforcement agents to raid dispensaries. However, marijuana remains listed as an illegal drug by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Hawaii Department of Public Safety has chosen, under Gov. Linda Lingle, to continue to enforce those laws.

Critics say the dispensaries are nothing more than fancified illegal drug stores, and that it is easy to get some doctors to provide medical marijuana cards for any ailment - real or imagined.

And to relieve some of the pressure on police and the courts, English, who sits on the Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, said he will co-introduce a bill that will decriminalize marijuana possession up to 1 ounce per person.

The measure would not legalize marijuana, he was careful to make clear. However, under his proposal, offenders caught in possession of marijuana would go through the civil court process, just like with traffic tickets, English said.

"It would be a fine versus jail time," English said. "It will clear up the courts of a huge backlog. Right now, only 0.4 percent of every possession case actually goes to prison. It's just clogging up the

system. It's still illegal, but we would give them a civil fine and make it a civil procedure.

"It should free up a lot of resources for law enforcement, too, so they can better pursue hard drugs like ice, cocaine and heroin. It's definitely a cost-saving measure, at least a few million (dollars) a year in the judiciary and even more money for the prisons."

Even with a small number of people incarcerated for possession, English noted that it costs $88,000 a year to house an inmate, and Hawaii's prisons are already full.

A number of other states, including California and New York, have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana as well. English added that his decriminalization measure would not protect dealers. He said he plans to introduce the bill this week.

"I think we're not in normal times," English said.