Police say county initiative making personal marijuana use in private "the lowest law enforcement priority", which passed overwhelmingly last week, will have no impact on law enforcement practice.
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The Police Department won't ease enforcement of marijuana laws following the passage of a ballot initiative making that the "lowest law enforcement priority."
"No. 1, it's not a law. It's a resolution," Police Chief Lawrence Mahuna said. "No. 2, there will be no change how we prioritize the enforcement of marijuana.
"The resolution does not invalidate federal law," Mahuna said. "It doesn't legalize marijuana. It's still a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
We will continue in our efforts to reduce the availability of illegal marijuana," he said.
"Nothing that's in a resolution can nullify and -- to put it simply -- trump a federal law," Mahuna said. "We can't back a resolution contrary to federal law. And it's in contravention of state law."
The initiative took effect upon its approval.
Adam Lehmann, director of Project Peaceful Sky, which pushed for the measure, emphasized that the initiative does not decriminalize marijuana.
"It's only for adult personal use on private property. And really, we talked with some law enforcement officers who wanted to stay anonymous, who were supportive of the bill," Lehmann said.
Both Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida, the county's top civil attorney, and Lehmann disagreed with Mahuna that it was a resolution. The charter states that an initiative approved by a majority of voters becomes "an ordinance of the county."
Ashida said that, as directed in the voter-approved initiative, the County Council cannot accept any funds for marijuana eradication programs, and that the county clerk must send out an annual letter to state and federal elected officials requesting "that ... government remove criminal penalties for the cultivation, possession and use of cannabis for adult personal use."
The clause that gives law enforcement officials the biggest headache states that "the cultivation, possession and use for adult personal use of cannabis shall be the lowest law enforcement priority for law enforcement agencies" in Hawaii County. This priority is defined as "a priority such that all law enforcement activities related to all offenses other than the possession of cultivation of cannabis for adult personal use shall be a higher priority than all law enforcement activities related to the adult personal use of cannabis."
Lehmann has previously said it will give police the option of reserving funds to focus on more serious crimes, like methamphetamine abuse, rather than going after small-time pot growers.
"Technically by law (the police) have to honor and respect the local law, but the truth of the matter is that it will be left up to the individual officer's discretion," Lehmann told the Tribune-Herald in June.
In May, Ashida wrote to Lehmann that "the Council could not legally, in our opinion, set the order of priority for the enforcement of our criminal laws. Such proposed action would run afoul of the doctrine of separation of powers." He explained that the County Charter allows the council to set the policy but the administration executes that policy.
"In this case, that means the police and the police alone are responsible for determining law enforcement priority," Ashida wrote.
"This priority is not something that is given to anybody but the police chief," Mahuna said. "Nothing will change."
Responded Lehmann: "That's his decision. He could make a different decision. We hope to work with him. I just can't express that enough."
Voters passed the initiative in Tuesday's election 53.1 percent to 38.6 percent, with 8.3 percent leaving the question blank.
"I will always respect what the voters decide," Ashida said.
However, he said, "you cannot do by initiative what you cannot do by ordinance."
Prosecuting Attorney Jay Kimura said Tuesday the initiative was unenforceable as written, and that he would check with the state attorney general to see what could be done to implement the initiative.
Lehmann disagreed with Kimura.
"We believe that we've made the adjustments so we believe that provision can be mandated," Lehmann said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency won't change its approach in the light of the initiative.
"In a nutshell, we're going to continue to enforce the drug laws, which includes marijuana," said Tony Williams, DEA assistant special agent in charge, speaking from Honolulu. He said the focus will remain on those who cultivate marijuana and distribute narcotics.
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