The Hawaii Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would remove the threat of being charged with a felony for low-level drug possession offenses.
The legislation would amend the existing statute by creating a fourth degree misdemeanor category for possession of two grams or less of a controlled substance. Currently, possession of any amount is considered a felony punishable by up to a year in jail.
Because misdemeanor convictions still carry the possibility of incarceration, the bill is considered a defelonization measure, rather than total decriminalization.
Most country prosecutors, as well as the state attorney general, opposed the measure, arguing that individuals already have alternative means of avoiding prison time for drug convictions such as deferrals or conditional discharges.
Regardless, the Senate passed the bill in a 21-4 vote, with the chamber’s only Republican member voting in favor of the reform measure. It now heads to the House for consideration.
Text of the legislation states that “criminal justice policies that impose harsh prison sentences increase incarceration rates and costs, but frequently do not result in a commensurate reduction in crime rates.”
“The legislature further finds that the imposition of incarceration to punish simple, low-level drug possession offenses should be limited in favor of the reduced or alternative sentencing options of misdemeanor classification,” it continues. “This will help reduce prison overcrowding, save taxpayer dollars, and free up resources to be reinvested into more effective treatment programs.”
Reform advocates supported the legislation as an alternative to the status quo, but they emphasized that its provisions remain unsatisfactory given the low possession threshold and ongoing threat of incarceration.
“This measure is an improvement upon existing law, but no person should face criminal consequences for what is effectively the possession of nothing,” Nikos Leverenz of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai῾i (DPFH) told Marijuana Moment. “The law enforcement lobby says that criminalization is a gateway to treatment, but criminalizing a person who may or may not have substance use disorder is simply not beneficial for them or larger society.”
“Perpetuating long cycles of recidivism for drug possession is detrimental to individual and public health,” he said. “Placing persons who have substance use disorder in correctional settings is also highly problematic from a human rights perspective, but many don’t see it that way as drug users have been categorically dehumanized in law and policy for at least a half century.”
In written testimony provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill earlier this month, DPFH said it “strongly believes that the criminalization of behavioral health concerns is unwise, unjust, and multiplies the suffering experienced by persons who may (or may not) be engaged in the misuse of drugs, often with a co-occurring mental health condition.”
While this defelonization bill addresses Schedule I and II controlled substances, the legislature passed legislation last year to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. After Gov. David Ige (D) allowed it to be enacted without his signature, it went into effect in January.
Separately, the Senate also unanimously approved a bill on Tuesday providing employment protections for medical cannabis patients in the state.