Maui residents had an opportunity to learn and ask questions about marijuana policy and the issue of legalization on Friday, March 28, at a community meeting co-hosted by Maui Youth & Family Services (MYFS) and the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawai'i (CDFH), nonprofit organizations. The meeting was held at the Cameron Center in Wailuku as part of Hawai'i's "Smart Approaches to Marijuana" (SAM) Week. The event was one in a series of public meetings SAM held throughout the state.
SAM is "an alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy which seeks a middle road between incarceration and legalization." In 2013, former United States Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, a mental health advocate, helped launch the SAM Project.
"We felt it was critical to increase awareness and bring some sense of urgency to the community about this important issue," said MYFS Clinical Director Rick Collins.
Keith Kamita, chief special agent of Hawai‘i’s Narcotics Enforcement Division, explained how Hawai‘i’s current medical marijuana laws work, and described new synthetic marijuana forms being created and marketed to the general public.
Maui's community meeting included presentations by national SAM Team Member John Redman and Keith Kamita, chief special agent of Hawai'i's Narcotics Enforcement Division. Also present were representatives from the Maui Police Department, Maui County, local health organizations, physicians and several MYFS adolescent substance abuse counselors.
Redman, who is also executive director of Californians for Drug-Free Youth (CADFY), explained that while SAM opposes marijuana legalization, it does support further research into the potential health benefits and aims "to inform public policy with the science of today's marijuana."
Redman discussed results from scientific studies showing that the average level of THC-- the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana--has increased from 1 to 2 percent in the 1960s to as high as 14 to 32 percent today.
"Parents need to understand that today's weed is not the Woodstock weed of the '60s," said Redman.
He also pointed to studies showing the negative consequences of smoking marijuana on adolescent brain development, and he warned about the potential for a "Big Marijuana" industry like the alcohol and cigarette industries.
Chief Kamita discussed the 60-plus marijuana-related bills and resolutions introduced during the 2014 Hawai'i legislative session thus far. He explained how Hawai'i's current medical marijuana laws work, and described new synthetic marijuana forms being created and marketed to the general public. An example is "Spice," which scientists say is 10 times more active than THC.
According to Kamita, synthetic marijuana is becoming increasingly popular among youth and, despite being legal in Hawai'i, poses serious health risks, including major hallucinations. He highlighted news stories about crimes committed while high on synthetic drugs--such as someone trying to eat a dog.
After the presentations, the general public was invited to ask questions and make comments.
MYFS school-based Counselor Heather Long described the rising popularity of "rave-like parties on Maui, where teens have easy access to marijuana and other drugs." Long also talked about an attitude shift she has seen in recent years. "A lot of young people see marijuana as healing and curative, and not as a drug," she said.
Also in attendance was Alcohol and Drug Policy Prevention Specialist and SparksInitiatives President Michael Sparks, who shared his experiences from work around the country.
"There has been a lot of talk about the alleged benefits of decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana, as well as allowing marijuana dispensaries in Hawai'i," said Sparks. "This is the wrong direction. In communities I work with, as laws on marijuana become increasingly relaxed, we see significant increases in availability of the drug and subsequent use by minors. The science is clear on this--the greater the availability of any drug, the greater its use and corresponding health consequences. Is this what we want for our keiki?"
Medical Doctor Madhup Joshi questioned what he felt was "misleading" scientific information presented by SAM.
"Even though studies have shown that THC levels have risen, we do not know whether that is necessarily bad or unhealthy," Madhup said.
Madhup also pointed to restrictions that have limited medicinal marijuana research.
"Marijuana is the only known mind altering substance, when taken alone, which has not caused any deaths," said Madhup. "Various government agencies, including the DEA, have impeded scientific research on marijuana and other mind-altering substances. Medications approved by the FDA have been promoted by drug corporations despite the corporations being aware that their medications might potentially harm or kill the user. It is safer, in my opinion, for the patient to use a substance which has been proven to be safe for thousands of years rather than a substance produced by a corporation whose mandate is to ensure the maximum return to their stock holders."
One attendee said she personally was a proponent of marijuana legalization. She attended the meeting because she was curious to hear about the issues surrounding the question of legalization.
"I learned there are many more consequences of legalizing this drug than I realized," she said. "Whatever direction it goes, we all need to remember that our commitment is to the young people--how they can be healthy and mentally fit. The involvement of big companies and marketers, which is expected, will make this commitment a constant battle."