Big Island Council looks a little wobbly on pot issue
Vote puts pot busts back in feds’ hands
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HILO » If recent County Council votes are any indication, the Big Island has a love-hate relationship with marijuana eradication efforts.
On May 20 a 4-4 tie vote served to reject $441,000 in federal funds due to public complaints that police eradication methods, especially helicopters, are too intrusive. As a result, federal agents might take over the eradication program on the Big Isle for the rest of the year.
But in a reversal that puzzled even its chairman, the Council voted last Monday to retain $529,000 in federal anti-marijuana grants for next fiscal year, beginning July 1. That money will be available in early 2009.
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HILO » Federal agents might take over eradication of marijuana on the Big Island for the remainder of the year, now that the Hawaii County Council has voted against the acceptance of federal anti-marijuana money by county police, Chief Lawrence Mahuna says.
The Council voted May 20 to reject $441,000 in federal funds due to public complaints that police eradication methods, especially helicopters, are too intrusive.
"It seems the majority of the Council supports eradication. They just don't support helicopters," explained Councilman Donald Ikeda, a consistent supporter of eradication.
Deputy Chief Harry Kubojiri said he will meet next week with U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo to discuss how marijuana eradication will continue in the absence of police receiving money for it.
Mahuna told the Star-Bulletin the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has fewer restrictions than county police.
Police flying rented helicopters must stay at least 1,000 feet above ground while doing searches, Mahuna said. Federal agents can fly as low as 500 feet, he said.
Police are not allowed to fly searches over rural subdivisions, Mahuna said. Federal agents can fly over those areas.
Police must respect state laws permitting medical marijuana use, Mahuna said. The state laws do not apply to federal agents, he said.
Beginning last year, the Council has taken a series of sometimes contradictory votes on eradication.
Last summer the Council eliminated federal eradication grants from the mayor's 2007-2008 budget, but there was no money in hand then so no money was lost.
The Council saw the move as an opportunity to take public testimony on eradication once money became available, said Lt. Sam Jelsma. That testimony came this spring.
Councilman Angel Pilago, previously a supporter of eradication, said he heard testimony alleging that police have confronted residents with guns drawn; searches without warrants and at the wrong site; and missing evidence.
Those allegations persuaded him to vote against the $441,000. The final vote was 4-4, too few yes votes to accept the money.
The money would have gone into this fiscal year's budget, ending on June 30, but could have been spent as late as December.
Now there is a gap until the end of the year, one which apparently will be filled by direct federal action.
In a reversal that even Council Chairman Pete Hoffmann found puzzling, the Council voted last Monday to retain $529,000 in federal anti-marijuana grants in the mayor's budget for the next fiscal year, beginning in July.
None of that money will be available until early next year.
Eradication continued earlier this year because some money still trickled through the pipeline, Kubojiri said.
Eradication to date has had two effects, reducing marijuana grown outdoors and forcing growers indoors, said Jelsma.
Meanwhile, better information has allowed police to increase arrests for indoor operations for three years, Maj. Sam Thomas said.
Jelsma illustrated that with numbers for East Hawaii: eight indoor warrants in 2005, 18 in 2006 and 29 in 2007.
Islandwide in 2007, police eradicated 38,007 plants and seized 275 pounds of dried marijuana. Their combined value was $10.6 million, Jelsma said.
The Council stopped federal eradication grants once before in 2000 but resumed in 2001 when police agreed to written rules on eradication procedures.
Jelsma said he expects more outdoor growing with money temporarily decreasing, but said that growers should not be complacent.
"I think the public is expecting everything is going to be shut down, and that's not going to happen. And we're going to be reminding them of that," he said.