The modern American drug war is now deep into its 43rd year. Every year, the federal government spends between $20 billion and $25 billion on measures designed to combat the sale of illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The results of these expenditures are a monument to failure: despite the fact that one in five inmates in state prison, and one out of every two inmates in federal prison are there on drug charges, the street price of illegal narcotics is dramatically lower than it was when President Richard Nixon first used the term “War on Drugs.” The only thing surprising about the 2014 announcement that five Nobel Prize winning economists had called for an end to the drug war was that there weren’t more of them.
Still, there is apparently hope. Over the last few decades, nearly 20 states have decriminalized marijuana, making punishment for possession of a few ounces of it no worse than a traffic citation. Nationwide, medical marijuana use is becoming mainstream. Vanity Fair–hardly the glossy version of High Times, recently ran “A Nice Bowl of Weed,” offering 10 cultured rules for smoking a joint.
In 2014, a CBS News poll showed that 51 percent of American support the legalization of marijuana. A year earlier, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 76 percent of the world’s doctors approve of its medical use.
Last month Rolling Stone even claimed that the drug war itself is “burning out.” “For the first time since Ronald Reagan took office, the federal prison population is shrinking,” Tim Dickinson wrote in the magazine’s Jan. 8, 2015 story. Dickinson also noted that outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder–not exactly a friend of civil liberties–has even taken the extraordinary step of lightening sentences for those convicted of federal drug crimes.
So what’s the problem with Hawaii? Though Hawaii led the nation 15 years ago by legalizing medical marijuana, and there are about 14,000 medical marijuana users in the state, it has since fallen way behind the times. For yet another year, the Hawaii state Legislature is seeing heavy debate over a variety of marijuana bills, though their prospects as yet remain unclear. What is clear is that House Bill 321–a high profile bill that calls for setting up three dozen medical marijuana dispensaries across the state–would legalize a practice that earned Brian Murphy of the cannabis co-op Patients Without Time a year’s jail sentence, which he’s currently serving at Maui Community Correctional Center.
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To say that Murphy has a lot of supporters is an understatement. In fact, there are currently 8,000 signatures on a petition asking Hawaii Governor David Ige to commute Murphy’s sentence, said Wade Holmes, a medical marijuana activist and friend of Murphy’s (see the petition at Patientswithouttime.com).
Sometimes, they can be too supportive. According to Mary Whispering Wind, Murphy’s partner, a few recently showed up near the prison, drumming and chanting to show their support for Murphy. Guards immediately moved Murphy out of his regular accommodations and into the “modulars”–four men in two-men cells. It was a bad situation for a man in his 60s suffering from epilepsy and PTSD.
“He didn’t know what why that happened until he came out,” she said. “He was in there a few days. I guess it was just a few people, but the jail takes these things very seriously.”
According to Whispering Wind, Murphy is taking “quite an array” of pharmaceutical drugs these days because he can’t take marijuana. “Of course he’s very anxious to get out,” she told me. “He’s in a lot of pain. But he says it’s been quite a learning experience: really a lesson that the guys inside need help.”
The way Hawaii’s medical marijuana law is written now, there are really only two legal ways for patients to get cannabis: grow it themselves or get their primary caregiver to do so for them. Any other method of obtaining even small quantities of marijuana–even if you’re a duly registered patient–is illegal.
Formed in 2004, Patients Without Time–a small clinic of sorts in Paia–sought to help people get Blue Cards, the State of Hawaii-issued license to use marijuana, as well as grow their own plants. They served hundreds of patients suffering from a range of problems: cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s Disease.
“Over 90 percent of Maui County medical marijuana patients cannot meet their own medical marijuana needs on their own,” Murphy told MauiTime writer Cheryl Ambrozic in her Jan. 19, 2006 story “Taking it to the streets.” “Most medical marijuana cardholders are too sick or they do not have the knowledge or a secure place to grow their medical-grade marijuana. Patients with Hawaii State Medical Marijuana issued Blue Cards need to be able to have an adequate supply of their medicine.”
The Maui Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office saw things differently. Two years after our story ran, the MPD arrested Murphy and six others for selling illegal narcotics. Their two-year investigation included three months of wiretaps. The resulting prosecution took six years.
“This is drug trafficking,” Deputy Prosecutor Timothy Tate said at Murphy’s sentencing in December. “[I]t’s clear that this organization was organized crime and this organization does engage in violence as organized crime will do to protect.” Never mind that Tate’s statement that PWT “engage[d] in violence” was little more than inflammatory rhetoric–Murphy’s Wailuku-based attorney Chris Dunn denied that Murphy had ever threatened anyone, and Murphy’s final no contest plea deal included no violence-related charges.
But at Murphy’s December 2014 sentencing, 2nd Circuit Court Judge Joseph Cardoza said something very strange. “We’re not here to have a discussion about the appropriateness of the use of medical marijuana,” Cardoza noted, according to a Dec. 6, 2014 story in The Maui News, which covered the trial. “The Legislature has also spoken in terms of how that’s to be done. The Legislature has provided for a way that can be done within the bounds of the law and frankly without the kind of costs that were involved in this case.”
That’s strange because it’s pretty much the opposite of reality. In fact, House Speaker Joe Souki–one of HB 321’s 21 introducers, which also included West Maui Democrat Angus McKelvey–said as much when the Legislature opened this year.
“We must also ensure the well-being of those who have unique health issues and who require a little more compassion from us,” Souki said in a Jan. 21 House of Representatives news release. “I am speaking of those who need better access to medical marijuana. Yes, it is legal in Hawaii. But there is no legal access to it. The time has come to fix this contradiction.”
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By my count, there are currently five bills that are still alive in the state Legislation that in some way ease access to marijuana (five other bills have been “deferred” and will likely not see any more action this session). Senate Bill 596 decriminalizes marijuana as a whole, reducing the punishment for possessing less than an ounce to a mere $100 fine–a civil infraction on par with a traffic citation. But it’s HB 321 that’s attracted the most attention.
The House of Representatives Health and Judiciary Committees, which have already held hearings on the bill, collected 220 pages of written testimony, much of which (pro and con) is highly emotional.
On the pro-side, the most heartfelt testimony came from Jari Sugano of Mi‘ilani. She testified that her six-year-old daughter Maile has a rare form of epilepsy–one that was alleviated through medical marijuana. But growing the plant, and then turning it into medicine for her daughter, proved a considerable challenge.
“As a trained agriculturalists [sic] for nearly 20 years and now “experienced” cannabis caregiver for the past year, I found the cultivation process extremely difficult,” Sugano said in her written remarks. “I endured multiple propagation failures, experienced timing (supply) issues and since Hawaii does not allow laboratories to test cannabis without penalty, it is virtually impossible to know what dosage Maile is on, or any other cannabis user for that matter. Without understanding the compounds in locally grown marijuana products, obtaining effective seizure control is highly improbable.”
Sugano’s experience goes to the heart of why we have cannabis co-ops like Patients Without Time in the first place. Hawaii’s legalization of medical marijuana back in 2000 was a landmark in the American legal history of pot, but it was just a first step.
Last year, the Legislature passed HCR 48, which created a task force to look into what a proper medical marijuana dispensary system would look like. The Task Force held 22 hours of meetings over six months, ultimately concluding that dispensaries were vital.
“This bill ensures that patients are safe by requiring laboratory screening for contaminants and for its component cannabinoids,” testified Rafael Kennedy, the executive director of The Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, which took part in the HCR 48 Task Force. “This is something that has been sorely lacking for far too long. Likewise, the bill provides resources for education. This is important for patients who until now have had no one who can help inform them about the differences between strains, and the indications of their particular conditions. It is also important because educating the public about medical cannabis is a hugely important part of insuring [sic] that medical cannabis is not used accidentally by unauthorized people or diverted for use by people without a qualifying condition.”
As you might expect, law enforcement opposition to HB 321 and other similar bills has been considerable.
“As a recent robbery on Maui has shown, people are willing to commit violent crime with the use of firearms for legal medication,” Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu testified on Feb. 7. “That puts families at risk when dispensaries not only have marijuana on hand, they will have large amounts of currency because banks will not accept accounts from the marijuana industry. This bill does not provide safeguards to prevent this type of crime happening near a residential area, putting families at risk. In the State of Colorado, each County has the power to choose whether or not to have dispensaries or marijuana producers.”
And that’s actually moderate opposition. Totally ignoring the very real problems that Jari Sugano mentioned in regards to converting marijuana into proper medicine dosages, the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office tried to insist that hardly anyone in the state needs help.
“As of December 2014, the State’s medical marijuana database indicated that there are 318 [emphasis in the original] registered medical marijuana patients—statewide—who are unable to grow their own medical marijuana (and do not have a caregiver who can grow it for them),” stated a letter from the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. “221 of these patients are registered on O’ahu, 78 on Maui, 12 on the Big Island, 6 on Kaua’i, and 1 on Moloka’i. In light of this, the Department believes it would be completely unreasonable to mandate the licensing of 26 dispensaries statewide, and potentially mandate 30 producers statewide, for 318 individuals.”
There are approximately 14,000 medical marijuana users in the state. That a dispensary could help all of them with better, proper medicine seems completely lost on the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. In any case, the bill passed both committees on Feb. 17, and has since moved to the House Finance Committee.
Of course, even all this is behind the times. The trend nationwide is for full-on legalization–at least for marijuana, just end the miserable drug war. Four states (Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington) and the District of Columbia have already done exactly that, and right now there are two bills in the U.S. House of Representatives that would, finally, end the federal prohibition on possessing marijuana and tax its sales much like alcohol, another mood- and mind-altering substance.
“That’s why I say,” said Mary Whispering Wind. “Let the recreational guys pay for the medical research.”
Too bad none of this will help Murphy. According to Dunn, Murphy’s attorney, Cardoza rejected his recent motion to do the balance of his prison sentence at home with electronic monitoring equipment. “The rationale was based on health concerns for Mr. Murphy,” Dunn said. “He was also willing to pay for the electronic monitoring.”
But Dunn added that since his motion was based on “mostly anecdotal” evidence that Murphy didn’t like the prescription pharmaceuticals he was getting instead of medical marijuana, and that he had no documentation saying the treatment he was getting from prison doctors was harmful, the motion went nowhere.
Cover photo courtesy Mary Whispering Wind
Cover design: Darris Hurst