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HHHRC Finalizes Merger with Drug Policy Forum of Hawaiʻi

Earlier this year, HHHRC finalized the formal merger process with Drug Policy Forum of Hawaiʻi (DPFH), which was founded in 1993 by Pam Lichty and the late Don Topping, a longtime sociology and linguistics professor at UH Manoa. DPFH was instrumental in passing Hawaii’s medical cannabis law in 2000 and the law authorizing medical cannabis dispensaries in 2015. HHHRC Executive Director Heather Lusk was a longtime member of DPFH’s Board of Directors. 


“Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii’s rich history of advocacy for a less punitive, more health-centered approach to substance use, substance use disorder, and other behavioral health conditions aligns very closely with HHHRC’s mission to reduce harm, promote health, create wellness, and fight stigma,” says Lusk. “We are hopeful that we can build greater awareness among policymakers and our island communities that our state should continually look for ways to increase access to harm reduction services and medical care outside of the carceral context.” 


During this legislative session, as in prior sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leverenz served as the lead voice for DPFH in the policymaking process and media, chiefly on cannabis reform. In December 2023, he co-authored an op-ed on adult-use cannabis legalization with Maui Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and state Representative Jeanne Kapela in Honolulu Civil Beat.  


Leverenz, who was born and raised in Honolulu, returned to Hawaiʻi in 2017 after living for 25 years in California. He joined the DPFH Board in 2018, when he also started working at HHHRC.  


In 2022, Leverenz served on the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct (Foley Commission), which was formed in the wake of the federal indictment of two Hawaiʻi legislators. In February, Leverenz spoke at length with Honolulu Civil Beat on his experiences with the Foley Commission and thoughts on needed reforms working around the legislative process in California and Hawaiʻi. With Lusk and others, he served on the Breakthrough Therapies Task Force hosted by the state Office of Wellness and Resilience, which supported a bill to provide limited immunity to clinicians who seek to use psilocybin for the treatment of major depressive disorder. 


Since July of last year, he has served as HHHRC’s point person on efforts around the forthcoming constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot to repeal Article I, Section 23 in the state constitution, working with the ACLU of Hawaiʻi, Hawaiʻi LGBTQ Legacy Foundation, Papa Ola Lokahi, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, and the legislature’s Equality Caucus. The bill authorizing the constitutional amendment, HB 2802, was forwarded by House Speaker Scott Saiki and passed by an overwhelming majority in each chamber, including two Republican votes (Representative Kanani Souza & Senator Brenton Awa). 


During the remainder of the year, Leverenz and DPFH’s board hope to restart a website, host virtual community conversations around drug policy, and participate in ongoing partnerships, programs, and conferences. 


“There was a very robust public conversation around cannabis reform this legislative session. Unfortunately, the status quo won the day, thanks largely to a Honolulu prosecutor who continues to widely misrepresent the risks of cannabis use while not acknowledging the harms of current policies. We look forward to working with allies like those with the Hawaii Alliance for Cannabis Reform next year. There are a range of other issues that require attention, including long overdue civil asset forfeiture reform, expansion of drug checking services, alternative responder mechanisms to behavioral health crises, and reform of the state’s paraphernalia law,” said Leverenz.  


“This past legislative session clearly demonstrated an ongoing need to maintain a steady and reliable public voice, alone and in partnership, to underscore the urgency of moving toward a public health approach to substance use and substance use disorder,” he said.  


“Current policies skew far too heavily on the criminalization of behavioral health issues and poverty, with a disproportionate impact on Native Hawaiian and Pasifika communities in every county. Hawaiʻi deserves better than the perpetuation of harmful and punitive drug policies from the 1970s and 1980s that contribute to overcrowded jails and the longest average term of probation in the nation.” 

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