Lightening Up On Cannabis
“Buds?” offered a young man sitting on the low cement bridge near Charo’s when I drove by after hiking the Kalalau Trail. It was 1982, my maiden trip to Hawaii, and I was getting a lesson in the easy availability of marijuana in the [Islands.At] the Big Island’s Waipio overlook, I encountered another man who described the bountiful crop cultivated in the verdant valley below. “Get 10-foot trees and colas [buds] tick as your leg,” he enthused.
In Kailua-Kona, I got to chatting with a 20-something guy leaning against a wall, hawking his wares of Kona Gold. He described how he and others grew their ganja in the hills, then brought it into town, where they rented hotel rooms and mingled among the tourists, selling their fresh buds and bogus “Thai sticks” fashioned from marijuana leaves, dried parsley and honey, gathered into clumps and affixed to barbecue sticks. “That’s our job, it’s how we live,” he told me. “It’s how a lot of people live.”
A few years later, I was living on Kauai, reporting for the Honolulu Advertiser from the various neighbor islands, where marijuana was often in the news. Law enforcement was eager to publicize its vigorous counter-offensive against the lucrative illicit trade. Police vice squads and Hawaii National Guard units launched regular raids that resulted in press releases recounting multi-day helicopter and field operations that uprooted vast numbers of plants–figures I learned were ballpark estimates when I asked one Big Island police captain whether they’d actually counted 1.2 million individual plants.
In 1985, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) joined the war against pakalolo, much of which was being grown on public land, especially on the Big Island. Within a year, DLNR had developed a new weapon–a spray rig that could be operated from a helicopter to apply a dose of herbicide to specific plants. “This method proved to be more efficient than manual eradication efforts resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of plants eradicated,” reports the agency’s website. Within two years Hawaii was engaged in year-round eradication with its intensive Operation Sweep.
But even all that manpower, money and herbicide wasn’t enough.
“Hawaii’s marijuana industry, driven by an insatiable demand, is the root of Hawaii’s drug problem,” former state Attorney General Warren Price wrote in his 1989 report, “A Survey of Hawaii’s War on Drugs.” Price complained that “the eradication effort in Hawaii is . . . costing over $1 million per year and it is not apparently reducing, much less eliminating, the marijuana industry in Hawaii, nor is there any evidence to suggest it is reducing local consumption.” The report called for slowing the tide of substance abuse by wiping out the Islands’ marijuana crop, which that year was worth an estimated $1 billion to $10 billion, surpassing the value of sugar, pineapple and even tourism. Price made a case for declaring the state a high-intensity drug trafficking area by claiming the marijuana trade “grew from a ‘back yard problem’ to the largest industry in Hawaii in just a few years.”
Price advocated a massive border interdiction and field enforcement effort, saying such federal aid was warranted because “it is the national demand that has created this problem for Hawaii.”
Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney staunchly supported using the military in domestic cannabis raids, in part to deflect criticism from Bolivia and Peru that the U.S. was hypocritically targeting drug crops overseas while ignoring marijuana cultivation at home, according to a 1992 article in Military Review.
The feds heard Price’s cry, and in 1990 the military and Drug Enforcement Administration(DEA) joined the state’s eradication efforts. Operation Wipeout, timed to destroy the summer harvest, employed a new technique. The entire state was photographed in grids, with marijuana cultivation areas identified for aerial spraying or manual eradication. It was the biggest joint-agency action in the state’s history, and one of the largest in the nation. A DEA report described it as one of the most successful eradication campaigns the agency had ever launched: “[E]xperimental eradication by DEA using a heliborne spot spray system proved to be very efficient. Glyphosate (commercial name Round Up) was used with a sticking agent (soap) and Red Dye Number 23 (used in lipstick). Growers were forced off public land into more expensive indoor facilities; the price of marijuana went up from $2,500 to $6,000 a pound. This resulted in 25 arrests, seizure of $1,200,000 in assets and the destruction of 388,005 sinsemilla (high quality, high THC content) marijuana plants.”
The blow to the state’s marijuana industry was underscored when 54 pounds of weed were seized at Honolulu International Airport in January 1981, having been sent from Phoenix to the Islands. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, former DLNR Director Bill Paty likened it to “sending coal to Newcastle. Except we’re not Newcastle anymore.”
Drive to legalize
Today, 22 years later, Hawaii is still conducting regular multi-agency Green Harvest marijuana eradication operations funded by grants from the federal government, and much of the cannabis that is consumed here is still imported. It comes from places like Northern California and British Columbia, where marijuana prohibition has been eased.
Attempts to ease Hawaii marijuana laws have typically met with favor in the Senate, only to stall out in the House. But those dynamics changed this year when Rep. Joe Souki became House Speaker and introduced House Bill 699, which would have taxed and regulated marijuana like alcohol, using the model that Colorado voters adopted last November. Though public testimony favored the bill by a margin of nearly nine to one, and House Judiciary members were poised to move it forward, Committee Chair Karl Rhoades held the measure, reporting that Souki had determined it didn’t have enough votes to pass the full House. HB 699 remains alive, however, and could be revived in the 2014 session.
“I’m really upset with Karl Rhoades for not holding a hearing,” says Rep. Cynthia Thielen. “What’s gonna happen is that people who prefer smoking cannabis to drinking alcohol will now have to claim they have a medical problem in order to be protected from arrest.”
There’s also the issue of targeted arrests. According to 2010 figures cited in an analysis of marijuana law enforcement commissioned by the Drug Policy Action Group (DPAG), native Hawaiians comprise 23 percent of the state population and 35.3 percent of arrests for marijuana possession. “From a civil liberties perspective, most troublesome of all . . . is the persistent and disproportionate impact on communities of color,” says Vanessa Chong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Hawaii. And males in general account for about half of the population and 75 percent of those arrested. Conviction of a marijuana offense can result in the loss of federal financial aid for college.
David Nixon, the study’s author and a University of Hawaii economist, reported that possession arrests have increased almost 50 percent since 2004, while distribution arrests have more than doubled. Hawaii arrests grew at a rate of 35 percent between 2002 and 2008, Nixon reported, a rate “far in excess of the estimated growth in consumption.”
Senate Bill 472, which would decriminalize marijuana by changing penalties for possessing an ounce or less from a criminal charge with possible jail time to a civil violation with a fine, was passed by the Judiciary and Labor Committee following a hearing on Feb. 26. It’s now headed for a full vote of the Senate.
Pam Lichty, president of DPAG, which co-founded Fresh Approach Hawaii with the ACLU, says that she’s “cautiously optimistic” that some changes will occur in Hawaii cannabis laws this session, noting the record number of reform bills that were introduced this year. This she attributes to publicity surrounding the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. “At least it’s become a topic of serious discussion, and part of it is the revenue potential for Hawaii. The state could save millions of dollars if they weren’t enforcing these laws that the public doesn’t support,” Lichty says. Nixon estimated that decriminalization would reduce state and local enforcement costs by $9 million annually.
A recent DPAG poll showed that 57 percent of Hawaii voters favor a strategy to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, up from 37 percent in 2005. The economic analysis also estimated Hawaii could generate at least $11 million per year if it taxed marijuana like alcohol.
Still, Lichty says, “a lot of people have a vested interest in terms of making sure things don’t change, including the drug testing industry, the private prison industry and maybe even the state prison system. The Maui, Honolulu and Big Island police departments submitted testimony opposing all cannabis reform bills thatwere heard.
To counter that influence, “We have to make it safe for the Legislature to do the right thing by showing them their constituents support it,” Lichty says. Citizens who want reform must speak up and contact lawmakers, she advises.