Medical Marijuana and Collateral Damage: Pain, Suffering, Arrests

Editor’s Note: The ACLU of Hawaii Foundation co-sponsored two events this past weekend to mark the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs.” The following is an excerpt of a presentation by Matt Rifkin.

I am here to update you on the current status of the Lowest Law Enforcement Priority of Cannabis Ordinance (LLEPCO), highlight the three organizations that are active at the moment, and discuss the issue of patients being arrested while transporting their medicine.

The “Peaceful Sky” law passed in November 2008 in Hawaii County, with 53% of the vote, but we have not seen the majority of if implemented. The police would not meet with us, the Corporation Counsel posted a statement that the law was unenforceable, and although there were several hearings in front of the County Council in 2009 and 2010, a grievance procedure was never set up. The police have indeed removed the line item “Green Harvest” from the Vice Department budget, but it seems to have reappeared at the DNLR, which is of course a state agency. (What a surprise.)

The police do issue the required semi-annual report, and although most of the information is not useful, there is one piece of data that highlights the waste of prohibition. In the period between May and October 2010 there were 355 cannabis related arrests, 227 (63%) of which were for possession of an ounce or less (called “promotion of a detrimental drug in the 3rd degree”, a petty misdemeanor). That means more than once every day of the year a person is being arrested and charged. If it costs $5000 for each case, then the county of Hawaii is spending over $2 million annually on minor possession. That is about 2% of the annual Public Safety budget.

There has been a civil lawsuit filed by a group called the Puna V.O.I.C.E. (Voters Organized in Community Enforcement), but they are doing it pro se, and I am not sure how successful they will be.

While I personally do not see the police making a pound a half of cannabis their “lowest priority,” I do think it possible to see a situation similar to Seattle, where the city attorney has stopped prosecuting all minor possession cases. A person could run for Hawaii County Prosecutor and do the same. Any volunteers?

I would be remiss if I did not mention Roger Christie, Share and the THC Ministry. They are a part of our ohana, were active in our movement and they are missed. The ministry helped many medical cannabis patients by providing safe access. Roger has been held without bail for nearly a year now, as he is considered “a danger to the community.” Roger is many things, a danger to the community is not one of them.

The Big Island chapter of Americans for Safe Access exists mostly in cyber-space at the moment. The geographic size of our island, finding suitable meeting locations, and of course raising money all hamper membership growth. But, we have been building our e-mail list, and despite the arduous legislative process, were able to elicit good testimony this year. However, less than 1% of the 8,000 patients state-wide submitted testimony, and we will have to do substantially better next year if we want to have our voices heard. There is an Oahu ASA chapter forming. I have heard of a patient support group in Kauai. Brian Murphy’s Patients without Time is on Maui. And of course, Drug Policy Form of Hawaii. Patients need to sign up, somewhere, anywhere. The opposition will be emboldened by the roll back in Montana, and so not only are we going to be fighting to improve the program here, but also fighting to keep chronic pain as a qualifying condition. This is no small matter, and we need to reach many more patients that we currently do.

Friends for Justice was formed a few years ago when several people kept running into each other in court. They found out they were all victims of a rogue Vice cop, John Webber (who even won officer of the year in 2007), and began meeting as a support group, trying to cope with the horrors that had been inflicted on them. One couple was forced to remain standing in the nude with guns pointed at them after a 6am SWAT raid. A teen-age girl was molested, and a gun was pointed at her young brother as he tried to use the bathroom. In the end, the County Council did nothing, and the police commission found no wrong-doing.

The group is Puna based, and does court support mostly in Hilo. 15 people did car pool and drove three hours to Kona to attend the trial of a patient who had been arrested at the airport. The group shares its experiences, tries to help guide people through the judicial process and help them deal with public defenders. There have been times when we are the only people in the courtroom not being paid by the state. Just being there, waiting with the defendant can be a huge moral boost. We contacted the local print media and got them to cover the cases of three patients who had been arrested at the airport. We will continue to shine the light of truth on the judicial process.


Matt Rifkin, born and raised in New York City, and 20-year resident of Tokyo, Japan moved to the Big Island in 2003 to escape the concrete jungles and neon lights. Became interested in cannabis reform when seeing the vast difference between US and Canadian media coverage of the murder of four RCMPs in 2005. Became personally interested in solving the inter-island transportation issue after being threatened with arrest at Kona airport on Christmas Day 2007. Although living in Puna, Matt lives “on the grid” and while not vegan or vegetarian tries to eat non-GMO papaya and organic fruits as often as possible.

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