By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A Big Island lawmaker believes it’s “high time” for Hawaii to legalize marijuana.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u is one of several lawmakers sponsoring legislation this session to make consumption legal for anyone over 21.
Ruderman said he is representing the views of his constituency on the issue and believes legalization would save the state millions and benefit the economy, including tourism.
“Fundamentally, it’s time,” he said. “It’s high time.”
If approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Hawaii would become one of the first states to legalize the drug.
Last year, Washington and Colorado became the first to adopt legalization.
There are currently six states, including Hawaii, considering following suit, said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Despite uncertainty over the federal government’s response, Fox said momentum appears to be on the side of legalization.
“It’s as good as time as any,” he said. “These changes need to be made now rather than later.”
Fox said he expects at least one more state to adopt legalization this year, though which one remains to be seen.
“I think Hawaii stands a really good chance,” he said. “There’s so much interest in reform and a lot of legislative support as well.”
There is certainly more interest in marijuana this year.
Twenty-two marijuana-related bills or resolutions have been introduced so far, with four seeking legalization and another three seeking decriminalization. Other bills relate to medical marijuana, already legal in the state, or use of hemp.
“I think this year there is going to be a serious debate about it for the first time ever,” said Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Action Group.
Lichty attributed the increase interest to legalization in Washington and Colorado.
“It’s no longer theoretical,” she said.
Public sentiment in the state also appears to be on the side of legalization.
A poll conducted recently by the Hawaii American Civil Liberties Union and Drug Policy Action Group found that 57 percent of registered voters in the state support legalization.
Maj. Samuel Thomas of the Hawaii County Police Department said legalization would be a mistake and result in harmful impacts on society.
The department will provide testimony against the bills, he said.
“It’s a drug and it’s got drug effects,” Thomas said. “To make it legal will just be more people using something that has control over their lives to some extent,” he added.
Lichty said legalization would provide the state with a new source of revenue.
A study conducted by the Drug Policy Acton Group concluded that up to $20 million could be gained a year through reduced costs and new tax revenue.
Along with providing more money for the state’s coffers, proponents of legalization say it will lead to less crime.
House Minority Leader Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson believes they have it wrong.
“I’d rather exercise more caution than have to worry about controlling the extra societal costs,” he said.
Ruderman said adults should have the choice whether to use the drug, much like with alcohol or tobacco.
“I do think laws should be in place to protect minors,” he said.
Ruderman said he believes the nation is going through a “generational change” on the issue and that it is time to pass the legislation.
“Literally, we’re still fighting Nixon’s drug war,” he said.
Ruderman has also introduced a bill to increase the amount of marijuana plants that can be grown for medicinal purposes from three to 21. Rep. Faye Hanohano, D-Puna, has introduced a similar bill in the House.
Sen. Malama Solomon, D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kona, Kohala, and Hanohano are also co-sponsors of legalization bills.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.