HONOLULU - A bill to legalize recreational marijuana in Hawaii died in committee Thursday. But state lawmakers advanced a measure that could decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of the drug.
"Washington and Colorado have taken the big leap, and everybody is looking at these two states to see how they will be dealing with all of the issues that come up," said Sen. Will Espero, who represents Ewa and chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee. "At this time, the legalization bill is dead."
That pronouncement followed written and spoken testimony from dozens of interest groups and private citizens on both sides.
Police and prosecutors argued against both proposed measures. They said legal marijuana would entice kids, result in more addiction and put Hawaii at odds with federal drug laws.
Supporters of the measures argued that prohibition leads to widespread incarceration, squanders public resources and fuels a black market.
During the committee hearing, opposition to mere decriminalization was notably softer than on legalization. Sixteen states have decriminalized nonmedical marijuana. Under the Hawaii decriminalization bill, getting caught with up to an ounce would result in a $100 fine on first offense.
The sharply divided conference room did share at least one laugh when a medical marijuana patient named Teri Heede, 58, of Makakilo testified in support of decriminalization. "Please," she told lawmakers, "we didn't get the legalization. Can you throw us a bone?"
For all the talk of marijuana's dangers to teenagers, none of them turned out to endorse criminal penalties for possessing the drug. One, Ashley Morgan, 19, an environmental studies major at Hawaii Pacific University, asked lawmakers to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
Her views were formed, she said, when Honolulu police stopped her and a friend on the sidewalk. Morgan said they found a tiny amount of pot in the friend's purse and arrested her.
"She got nailed on half a gram," Morgan said after the hearing. "And now she's a criminal."