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Hawaii bill would decriminalize small amounts of 'dangerous' drugs

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By Dan Nakaso
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — It would be a misdemeanor — and no longer a Class C felony — to possess less than 2 grams of a “dangerous drug” such as methamphetamine, heroin, morphine and cocaine under a bill that passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday.

According to SB 2793, “Enforcement of the offense of promotion of a dangerous drug in the third-degree costs state taxpayers over $13 million each year to incarcerate low-level, non-violent offenders. … Hawaii’s experience corroborates mounting national data demonstrating that incarceration has no effect on rates of drug use or overdose deaths, but actually increases recidivism among those at low risk to reoffend.”

The bill was supported by Kauai’s prosecuting attorney and opposed by the state attorney general, prosecuting attorneys on Maui and Honolulu, the Maui and Hawaii island police departments and Circuit Judge Shirley Kawamura.

Supporters of SB 2793 include the state public defender, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Libertarian Party of Hawaii and the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.

Following a hearing Friday, SB 2793 was amended to increase the amount of drugs that would be included in the new fourth-degree possession class — 2 grams from one-sixteenth of an ounce.

If the bill becomes law, Hawaii would follow California, Utah, Connecticut, Alaska and Oklahoma since 2014 in decriminalized possession of certain drugs from felonies to misdemeanor offenses, according to the public defender’s office.

In written testimony, the public defender’s office said Hawaii would save $13,000 per year for each low-level, nonviolent offender who is not sent to prison.

California’s jail population fell by about 10,000 per day, on average, in the first two months of passage of its law, and felony arrests in California decreased by 118,940 in the first year, according to the public defender’s office.

But Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors wrote that the bill would apply retroactively and convert felony convictions into misdemeanor convictions.

Connors agreed with Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto, who testified in person that drug defendants are offered multiple opportunities and programs to avoid criminal convictions — along with probation even before going to prison.

Kenneth Bugado Jr., Hawaii County’s deputy police chief, wrote to the Judiciary Committee that methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine and heroin are highly addictive and “often directly responsible for thefts, robberies, and assaults on members of our community.”

He also wrote that “many of the homeless persons that my officers encounter are either under the influence of dangerous drugs, have dangerous drugs in their possession or are homeless due to their addiction to dangerous drugs.”