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Measure To Decriminalize Cannabis Possession Moves Forward

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A measure to decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts is moving forward at the State Legislature. House Bill 1383 would make possessing three grams or less of cannabis a misdemeanor. It would also establish a fine, and expunge prior convictions for possession of three grams or less from criminal records.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety, Intergovernment, and Military Affairs Committees heard testimony today from government agencies, residents, and community organizations.

Among those opposing the bill were the county police departments, state Attorney General, and Honolulu prosecuting attorney's office.

"Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and is still a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance," said Deputy Attorney General Lance Goto. "So it's a violation of federal law to grow, distribute or use marijuana."

"We have concerns about marijuana-impaired driving. That is a problem. One of the main concerns there is unlike with alcohol, where you can determine alcohol impairement with certain tests, there is nothing like that for marijuana impairment."

Even those in support of decriminalizing cannabis possession had concerns about the measure, mainly regarding the possession amount.

"This bill has really two parts," said Carl Bergquist, executive director of Drug Policy of Hawaii. "There is the going forward aspect of it, in terms of future arrests. If you have a low amount, we will continue to arrest more people. And that will sort of exaggerate the situation we're trying to address."

"The second part is the expungement portion of the bill. We want to expunge previous offenses, and if we have a low amount there - we're not going to expunge as many offenders. And their lives will continue to have that black mark on their record."

Supporters also raised concerns about the proposed $200 fine for possession, saying it is too high for three grams or less. They also argued the penalties would disproportionately impact those with low-income, communities of color, and at-risk youth.

The Senate committees passed HB 1383, but amended the fine to $30.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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