As state lawmakers continue considering the fate of a bill that decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana, a national group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana has formed a Hawaii chapter to fight the legislation.
Speaking Wednesday at Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School in Waimea, former White House adviser and SAM co-chairman Kevin Sabet said the goal of the two invitation-only meetings was to throw the brakes on the “100 miles-per-hour freight train” to marijuana legalization, as well as begin conversations that offer “fresh approaches to marijuana policies, ones that use science, public health and public safety principles as a guide.”
SAM was invited to come to the Big Island by The Friday Night Crew — Coalition for Healthy Hawaii Communities. It is part of The Pantry, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that also includes Waimea Artists’ Guild and Mama’s House Thrift Store. The Friday Night Crew is helping with the establishment of SAM’s Hawaii chapter, said Beth Mehau, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Hoku Pagan, a 15-year-old Waimea teen and Friday Night Crew member, shared how “disturbing and scary” it was to see the various pot shops, as well as their employees wearing lab coats and offering remedies to those passing by, while visiting Venice Beach, Calif., recently. She disliked how easy it was for these businesses to sell and promote marijuana to anyone, including youth. She now worries about the possibility of a similar situation in Hawaii.
According to its website, SAM is “a group of experts and knowledgeable professionals advocating for a fresh approach that neither legalizes, nor demonizes, marijuana.” It strives to inform public policy with science, have discussions about reducing the unintended consequences of current marijuana policies while promoting research on marijuana’s medical properties.
Sabet said SAM is not advocating for low-level marijuana users to go to prison or for former users with a record to be prevented from getting a job or benefits. Instead the group wants legislation that would deliver marijuana’s medicinal potential without compromising public health. Emphasizing that point, he said, “Opium has medical value; it’s called morphine, but we don’t smoke opium to receive its benefits and we don’t need to smoke marijuana to get its medical value.”
Former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who is also leading SAM, hoped the more than 60 attendees would become active and prepared in their advocacy. Meeting participants included government officials, lawyers, enforcement agencies, educators, business leaders, health professionals and community organizations.
Kennedy explained how proponents often push for legalization, citing various financial incentives, including the potential money the government could gain from taxation of marijuana sales and how those funds can be used to do good, whether it’s funding public education or fixing ailing budgets.
However, he said this false dichotomy only minimizes the risks, which are actually bigger than currently perceived. Those looking for examples, he added, need only to research what happened in California and Colorado, following the so-called Starbucks equivalent to access to marijuana in these states.
“For every dollar the government brings in from taxation of alcohol and tobacco, it spends $10 on social costs,” Kennedy said. “The social impacts and other terrible costs of expanding the usage of marijuana will far outweigh the revenue produced. The costs we know we will see include more emergency room visits, treatment admissions and car crashes, as well as an increased incidence of mental illness and learning problems. And, these costs will only increase as marijuana becomes more available, is easily obtainable and heavily promoted in a permissive environment.”
Senate Bill 472 was passed last week by the House Judiciary Committee. If enacted, possessing 1 ounce or less of marijuana would be a civil violation with a fine of $1,000.
Among the problems Sabet and Kennedy associated with this bill are that repeated offenses would be allowed and there are no penalties or ramifications for minors who are caught. They also think the legislation lowers people’s perception of harm about marijuana, particularly youth, and would lead to more young users. An increase in marijuana use in Hawaii would have major consequences for children, businesses, the tourism industry and the military, they added.
John Redman, Californians for Drug Free Youth Inc. executive director and SAM supporter, spoke Wednesday about how attitudes drive behavior and the importance of creating positive, healthy norms in our communities.
“There are two very important truths in prevention, which are not rocket science. One is that if you increase the availability of a drug, you increase its use. The second is if you lower the risk and perception of harm of that drug, you increase its use,” he said.
“Legalizing marijuana does both. And so, how can kids say ‘no’ when the adults around them are saying ‘yes’?”
To get involved or for more information, visit learnaboutsam.com.