Power Play

Marijuana advocates are hard at work trying to game the system to ensure an easy and speedy passage of their pet legislation. In doing so, they do the public a great disservice – bypassing important committees. However, a deeper analysis reflects partisan dynamics and an internal party struggle to take credit for legalizing marijuana in Hawaii.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor scheduled a special hearing for Thursday morning to push out three more bills to decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Instead, those in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana would be fined an amount not to exceed $100. So why does the Senate need five different bills to legalize marijuana?

Bill Referral Introducers
SB189 HTH/PSM, JDL ESPERO, Baker, Galuteria, Ihara, Ruderman
SB596 HTH, JDL RUDERMAN, ENGLISH, ESPERO, GABBARD, Shimabukuro
SB666 JDL ESPERO, GALUTERIA
SB708 JDL GABBARD, DELA CRUZ, ENGLISH, ESPERO, RUDERMAN, Riviere
SB879 JDL ENGLISH, DELA CRUZ, ESPERO, INOUYE, RUDERMAN, Baker, Shimabukuro

The first answer is ‘gaming the system’. Legislators carefully craft their bills with a mind toward the committees that the bills would likely be referred to. Notice from the table above that marijuana decriminalization bills started out by being referred to three different committees for a minimum of two hearings. The last three bills, to be heard on Thursday, will be heard by only one committee at one hearing. The simple answer is language from SB189 was further refined to make SB666 appear to only be a judicial issue.

That simply is not true. Advocates for marijuana have relentlessly tried to dissociate the issue of public safety from marijuana use. Possession of marijuana is just as much an issue of public safety as possession of an open alcoholic beverage, a concealed knife or a powder keg of explosives. Criminalizing possession is intended as a deterrent against dangerous actions.

The second answer is that the five different bills reflect internal power struggles in the hyper-partisan Senate, and an eagerness to take credit for legalizing marijuana. Despite wearing the same party label, there is a wide spectrum of views and personalities in the 24-member Senate majority caucus. Cliques that are more appropriate toward high school aged teenagers form as power centers.  Introduction and sponsorship of bills reflect these factions – Ruderman, Ihara and Gabbard (co-introducers on SB189) catapulted Espero into the Senate Vice Presidency. Not surprisingly, Espero’s signature appears on all five because of the authority he wields, and his passion to be the one who legalizes marijuana.

While this explains why five different bills exist, it does not explain why the Senate needs to pass three more when they have already advanced two bills (SB189, SB596) that do the exact same thing. In the Senate, there is value to hearing all five bills to maintain stability and alliances between different factions.

All three bills on Thursday’s JDL agenda should be opposed because they intentionally skipped a hearing before the public safety committee (PSM). Legalization/decriminalization of marijuana is a bad idea, fast-tracking the same idea through the Legislature by skipping committees only makes it worse – if that was even possible.

SB189 and SB596, which also require a hearing before JDL to advance are conspicuously absent from the day’s agenda. It looks like marijuana advocates are hoping that the House will also refer it to a single committee after it crosses over from the Senate to escape public debate and scrutiny.

For analysis and draft testimony, please see the 2015 Legislation Tracker.

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