HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - State lawmakers are considering a controversial proposal that would reduce the penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs, like meth and heroin.
Under Senate Bill 2793, possessing two grams or less of any dangerous drug would be a misdemeanor offense, instead of a felony. Depending on the offense, violators could still face jail time.
State Sen. Karl Rhoads, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says people suffering from drug addiction need treatment rather than punishment.
"Going to jail doesn't end drug problems," said Rhoads. "They just continue on through prison, and when (offenders) come out, they still have (addictions). This is not just a law enforcement issue, it's a health care issue."
Supporters of the bill say at least five other states have adopted similar laws, and are reportedly seeing lower prison populations, while saving taxpayer money and resources.
"As long as the person doesn't commit other crimes to steal or to rob people to support their drug habit, there's no point in treating (the offense) as a felony because what they really need is drug rehab," Rhoads said.
But opponents of the bill say the public needs to understand how highly addictive and dangerous these substances are.
“Ingestion of even minuscule amounts of Carfentanil (equivalent in size to a grain of salt), is known to be lethal,” the Department of the Attorney General testified.
The Maui and Hawaii Island Police Departments say meth and heroin use is often directly responsible for many thefts, robberies, and assaults that happen in their communities.
And the Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney testified that the bill is unnecessary, since current law already offers drug offenders various opportunities to avoid prison.
But Justin Kollar, Kauai's prosecutor, says the state needs a new approach.
"I fully believe in prosecuting dangerous drug dealers and folks who are importing the drugs to Hawaii, but for the folks at the bottom of the chain, what we're doing now isn't working," said Kollar. "So it's time to try new things."
Kollar says sending those suffering from drug addiction to prison sets them up for failure when they get out.
"Labeling them with a felony conviction can create all kinds of impediments to housing and employment. That is basically the opposite of what we want folks to have when they're in that situation," Kollar said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the proposal on Friday. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote.