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Hawaii Attorney General’s Office Defends Marijuana Legalization Proposal From Law Enforcement Attacks



The office of Hawaii’s attorney general is pushing back against criticism of the official’s recently released marijuana legalization plan, defending its public health and safety provisions as members of the law enforcement community voice opposition to the reform.

After announcing in April that her office would support efforts to enact legalization, Attorney General Anne Lopez (D) unveiled a comprehensive cannabis bill last week, earning praise from supporters in the legislature and mixed reactions from advocates who want to see it revised to more aggressively address equity issues and reduce criminalization.

On the other side of the debate, however, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm says representatives of law enforcement are firmly against legalizing marijuana in general and the attorney general’s plan specifically, arguing that the current system of prohibition is “not broken,” and regulating adult-use cannabis would lead to increased hospitalizations without mitigating the illicit market.

“To me, there is no impetus to changing the system,” Alm told Hawaii News Now. “Teenagers go to the emergency room thinking they’re going crazy because it’s such a strong drug. It’s a different drug entirely.”

But David Day, a special assistant with the attorney general’s office, says the prosecutor’s concerns are overblown, and the legalization measure that’s been put forward deliberately takes into account law enforcement perspectives.

“The Department of Law Enforcement, which is that state’s leading law enforcement agency, worked collaboratively with the Department of the Attorney General on this bill,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is present a bill that tries to mitigate as many of those risks as possible.”

Alm—who organized a forum opposing legalization that involved representatives of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) in August—also dismissed arguments that the attorney general’s bill would help empower police to target illicit growers. He said that concept is “total BS,” and law enforcement would work to block the reform.

Hawaii lawmakers have introduced legalization legislation in recent sessions, with the Senate passing a reform bill in March, but it’s yet to be enacted. Legislators and the attorney general have signaled that 2024 is the year legalization will become law.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman David Tarnas (D) said the attorney general did “a really good job pulling together all of the different input and providing a comprehensive bill” with her recent proposal. And Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D), chair of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, called the measure “the best version to date.”

Advocates, meanwhile, are encouraged by the introduction of the reform proposal by the high-ranking state official. But while they support several key components, such as the inclusion of a home grow option, they’ve also identified areas where they want to see equity-focused changes that incorporate meaningful relief for people who’ve been criminalized over cannabis and prevent further penalization over marijuana-related activity.

Here are the key provisions of the attorney general’s draft marijuana legalization bill: 

  • Adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and five grams of non-flower marijuana products.
  • Adults could cultivate up to six plants in a secured location at their residences and store up to 10 ounces of cannabis from those plants. A single household could not have more than 10 plants, regardless of the number of people living there.
  • The possession and cultivation legalization provisions wouldn’t become effective until January 1, 2026.
  • A five-member Cannabis Control Board would be established, with members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
  • The board would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing marijuana business licenses for cultivators, processors, medical cannabis dispensaries, adult-use retailers, craft cannabis dispensaries and independent labs.
  • Regulators could also adopt rules to provide permits for special events, social consumption lounges and trucking transportation.
  • Licensing applicants would need to be Hawaii residents for at least five years. People with prior felonies (except most dealing with marijuana) would be precluded from obtaining licenses.
  • To promote industry ownership diversity, licensees could not have an interest in more than three businesses of a single license type, and they could only have interests in a total of nine licenses altogether.
  • The board would be authorized to add criteria for licensure to promote public health and safety, agricultural sustainability, and participation in the market by people from historically disadvantaged communities.
  • Regulators would also need to adopt rules setting potency limits on cannabis products, and they would be empowered to restrict certain products from being marketed. The board would also need to develop rules banning or restricting the use of synthetic cannabinoid products.
  • Existing medical cannabis dispensaries would likely be first in line to obtain adult-use retailer licenses, with rules allowing them to convert their licenses starting October 1, 2025.
  • Individual counties would be able to set restrictions on the locations of marijuana businesses, but they could not outright ban them.
  • A cannabis enforcement division would be created under the Department of Law Enforcement to investigate illegal cannabis activity.
  • Marijuana products would be subject to a 10 percent excise tax, plus the state’s standard four percent sales tax.
  • The bill calls for tax revenue to be distributed to a cannabis regulation special fund (40 percent), cannabis social equity fund (20 percent), public health and education fund (20 percent) and marijuana lawn enforcement special fund (20 percent).
  • Financial institutions would be protected from being penalized under state law simply for working with state-licensed cannabis businesses.
  • Social equity applicants would be defined as businesses with at least 51 percent ownership by a person who’s lived in a disproportionately impacted community for a minimum of five out of the last 10 years. Disproportionately impacted areas would be defined as those that are historically disadvantaged, areas of “persistent poverty” and medically underserved.
  • Regulators would waive 50 percent of application fees for eligible social equity applicants, and they would need to create a grant fund to provide such applicants with training and technical assistance. Grants would also support community-based organizations working to broader address the needs to disadvantaged areas.
  • The bill would not provide for automatic expungements or resentencing for prior cannabis convictions. Instead, it would require the board to create a report by late 2026 or early 2027 on the “advisability of expunging or sealing low level cannabis offenses” and the mechanisms on how to process such relief.
  • Regulators would also need to carry out research and compile reports on annual marijuana business licensing, production and tax data, as well as social and economic trends, impact on illicit markets and more.

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Meanwhile, the separate legalization bill that advanced through the Senate in March is still in play in the two-year legislative session. Advocates appreciated that the legislation additionally provides for expungements, but it’s been stalled in the House.

Advocates struggled under former Democratic governor, Dave Ige, who resisted legalization in part because he said he was reluctant to pass something that conflicts with federal law.

But since Green took office, activists have felt more emboldened. He said last year that he’d sign a bill to legalize cannabis for adults and already has ideas about how tax revenue from marijuana sales could be utilized.

In April, the Hawaii legislature also approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.

Separately, in August, a Hawaii psychedelics task force that was established under the governor’s office held its first meeting as experts work to prepare the state to potentially allow regulated access to novel therapies like psilocybin and MDMA.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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