The Hawaii Senate passed a bill today to remove state-level criminal penalties for seriously ill people who use marijuana with their doctors' approval. Already approved by the state House of Representatives and endorsed by Governor Ben Cayetano, the new law will be the first of its kind to be enacted by a state legislature, rather than through a ballot initiative. Although numerous state legislatures have enacted medical marijuana research laws since the late 1970s, the Hawaii law is the first to effectively remove criminal penalties for medical marijuana users.
The bill, S.B. 862, is similar to the medical marijuana initiatives that passed in all seven states (and the District of Columbia) in which they have appeared on the ballot since 1996. Although federal law criminalizes the medical use of marijuana, because 99% of all marijuana arrests in the United States are made by state and local officials, changing state laws can effectively protect nearly all medical marijuana users from arrest and imprisonment.
"The second wave of the campaign to protect medical marijuana users is underway," said Chuck Thomas, director of communications for the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which supported the effort to pass the landmark legislation in Hawaii. "The first wave was the passage of state ballot initiatives, the second is state legislation, and the third will be federal legislation."
A bipartisan medical marijuana bill made some progress in Maryland this year, and MPP expects it to pass next year. MPP will also work to get medical marijuana bills introduced in 40 other states.
"We're grateful that Hawaii's elected officials care so much about seriously ill people," said Pamela Lichty, vice president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, the main proponent of the bill. "This is the first time in US history that a state legislature has enacted a law to allow patients to possess and grow marijuana. Now we must ensure that the law is effectively implemented to help patients without causing any harm to the public."