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Hawaii House Passes Bills To Expand Marijuana Decriminalization And Create Expungements Process



Though the effort to legalize marijuana in Hawaii fell short this year, lawmakers are moving forward on other cannabis-related legislation, including plans to expand the state’s limited decriminalization law and establish a task force on expungement.

This week House lawmakers gave initial approval to both the decriminalization bill, SB 2487, as well as a separate measure, SB 2706, that would create a task force to develop a state-initiated program to clear past criminal records, including for cannabis offenses.

Both pieces of legislation passed second readings on the House floor on Wednesday, with final third reading votes expected in that chamber early next week.

Meanwhile a separate, marijuana-specific expungements bill, HB 1595, was abruptly scheduled for a Friday hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee after it had appeared to potentially be dead for the session.

Advocates say they’re happy to see the measures move forward after the failure of the state’s broader legalization bill.

“On the heels of legalization dying for the year, it’s encouraging to see the legislature at least move to reduce the number of lives turned upside down by cannabis prohibition by expanding Hawaii’s paltry decriminalization law,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “Every year, hundreds of Hawai’i residents are arrested for personal use quantities, creating criminal records that make it difficult to get a housing and jobs. It’s long past time Hawai’i stop ruining lives over cannabis possession.”

SB 2487, the decriminalization expansion bill, would in its current form specify that possession of an ounce of marijuana or less would be subject to a $25 civil fine. Under existing law in Hawaii, possession of up to three grams carries a $130 fine.

Senate lawmakers unanimously approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Joy San Buenaventura (D), in a vote on March 5. The House approved it on second reading in a 32-16 vote on Wednesday.

“Heavily fining or putting people in jail for possession of some small amount simply serves to impair people to hold a job, get loans, things you need to advance in society,” said Sen. Chris Lee (D), one of the bill’s authors, according to local ABC affiliate KAKE. “Decriminalizing possession of cannabis is something that is a big step forward.”

But Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, an outspoken critic of cannabis reform, called the proposal “legalization on the cheap” and said it “sends the wrong message.”

“It is a black market increase bill,” he said, according to KAKE. “You are encouraging people to use, and that will make the black market grow.”

In some cases, individuals could perform community service instead of paying a financial penalty under the new decriminalization legislation.

Between one and two ounces of cannabis, meanwhile, would be punishable as a petty misdemeanor—up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Currently that range is between three grams and an ounce, with anything between one ounce and one pound carrying a misdemeanor penalty of up to a year of incarceration and a $2,000 fine.

The bill would also create a new violation for smoking marijuana in a public area, which would carry a $130 fee with the possibility of community service.

“This actually provides a measure to allow police officers to enforce against people found smoking marijuana in a public place,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti (D), according to KITV.

Other lawmakers, however, have said they don’t see a need for the reform.

“What we are doing is allowing people to carry enough marijuana to sell it, and with the $25 fine, it makes it commercially viable as well,” Rep. Scot Matayoshi (D) said Wednesday on the House floor.

Added Rep. Sean Quinlan (D): “I think our current level of criminalization is sufficient, and I don’t think we are solving anything with this measure.”

The other bill that got second reading approval in the House on Wednesday, SB 2706, meanwhile, would create a so-called Clean Slate Expungement Task Force that would be charged with crafting legislation for a state-led record-clearing program. It would include certain officials—including the attorney general, chief justice, public defender and various prosecutors—as well as representatives from various advocacy groups, including ACLU of Hawaii, the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), the Hawaii Innocence Project and others.

The task force would also seek technical assistance from Code for America, which has worked on clearing cannabis records in other states, and the bipartisan Clean Slate Initiative.

As of 2019, according to a report on the bill from the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, “three hundred thousand residents of the State have been adversely affected by past criminal records, hindering their ability to access employment, housing, and other opportunities.”

The bill passed the full Senate in early March on a 23–2 vote.

While the expungements bill does not explicitly mention cannabis, marijuana-related offenses are widely expected to be included in the would-be task force’s discussions.

A separate cannabis-focused expungements bill, meanwhile—HB 1595—appeared to be dead for the session until lawmakers revived it on Thursday, scheduling it for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday.

That measure initially would have directed the state to automatically expunge tens of thousands of arrest and conviction records for low-level marijuana possession, though a committee amendment last month at the request of Attorney General Anne Lopez’s (D) office limited the plan to a one-county pilot program. Observers say it’s possible, though unlikely, that lawmakers could use procedural maneuvers to revive that proposal this session.

At ACLU of Hawaii, Policy Director Carrie Ann Shirota applauded lawmakers for advancing the two bills, calling both proposal “sensible public policy reforms.”

“Data from the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General confirms that youth and adults in Hawai’i continue to be arrested for cannabis possession in Hawai’i if they have an amount above the low current threshold,” she said in an email to Marijuana Moment. “This results in harmful and unnecessary arrests and wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars to process these charges through the criminal legal system. Beyond that, arrests for cannabis possession diverts the police from improving clearance rates and the prosecutors from focusing on corruption and serious crimes.”

Adrian Rocha, LPP’s policy manager, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment that the group’s “efforts have revealed that at least 50,000 records carry an invalid charge for simple possession and that approximately 40,000 of those criminal records are for non-convictions,” meaning that “thousands of individuals whose lives have been permanently altered for an offense decriminalized in 2019.”

“We remain committed to ensuring HB 1595 passes this session and are in contact with the Hawai’i Criminal Justice Data Center and other agencies to ensure the policy is workable and delivers relief,” he said. “We are also encouraged by our inclusion in the task force bill, SB 2706, and intend to lend our expertise to develop broader recommendations for a state-initiated record-clearing program.”

Earlier this week, legislative leaders announced that the effort to legalize marijuana in Hawaii this year had come to an end. In a statement, Rep. Kyle Yamashita (D), who chairs the House Finance Committee announced that his panel would not hear the legalization measure, SB 3335, ahead of a key legislative deadline.

The decision effectively kills bill, which had already passed the full Senate and several House committees this session before only barely advancing in an initial House floor vote earlier this month.

As supporters and opponents have both pointed out, this past session has marked the furthest any legalization measure has made it through Hawaii’s legislature. But after only barely passing a House floor vote late last month, on a 25–23 vote, many also foresaw difficulty going forward.

The more-than-300-page bill was formally introduced in both chambers in January and is based on a legalization plan written by state Attorney General Anne Lopez (D), who was appointed in December 2022 by Gov. Josh Green (D), a supporter of legalization. It would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and up to five grams of cannabis concentrates.

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. David Tarnas (D), has already committed to bringing a revised bill next session.

“During the interim, I look forward to working with the Attorney General’s office to improve the language of the bill to address issues brought up during the House debate on this bill,” he told Marijuana Moment in an email Tuesday evening. “I will be collecting factual information about public safety and public health concerns, including the assertion of some opponents that legalization would actually result in an increase in cannabis use by youth as well as an increase in fatal car crashes attributable to cannabis use.”

As for those claims, Tarnas continued, “I think the evidence shows that there is no evidence of any increase in use of cannabis by youth in legalization states, but I will gather the data and present it next session. Similarly, I think the evidence from legalization states shows that there has not been any demonstrable increase in car crashes by drivers that is attributable solely to cannabis use. But, I will gather the data on this topic and present it next session.”

While most of opposition to the bill came from law enforcement, some Democratic leaders also vocally opposed the reform. Democratic Majority Whip Rep. Scot Matayoshi, for instance, said before last month’s House floor vote that he didn’t think colleagues “should vote with reservations or vote in favor of this bill just to see it move along.”

“We can’t be voting on a bill that has some good parts but also has an incredible harm to our society in the form of legalizing recreational marijuana,” he said.

Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that later stalled the House, but advocates were hopeful this year’s proposal could get further. Gov. Green said last month that legalization is a “big social issue that remains” to be addressed in the state, signaling that he’d likely sign a bill to end cannabis prohibition if lawmakers send him one.

Democrats in control of Hawaii’s Senate had said in January that cannabis legalization is one of their top priorities this legislative session, framing the reform as a means to boost the state’s economy.

Hawaii residents themselves seem to support the change. A recent Hawai’i Perspectives survey by the Pacific Resource Partnership found 58 percent support for legalization.

Advocates previously struggled under former Democratic Gov. 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. The current governor said in 2022 that he’d sign a bill to legalize cannabis for adults and already had ideas about how tax revenue could be utilized.

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

As for other drug policy matters, lawmakers in February advanced a bill that would provide certain legal protections to patients engaging in psilocybin-assisted therapy with a medical professional’s approval. The measure would not legalize psilocybin itself but would instead create an affirmative legal defense for psilocybin use and possession in the case of doctor-approved use under the guidance of a trained facilitator.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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