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Hawaii Marijuana Legalization Bill Barely Clears House Floor Vote, With Democratic Whip Urging Against The Reform



A Senate-passed marijuana legalization bill in Hawaii has survived a close vote on the House floor, with members narrowly advancing the proposal to its final legislative committee as some lawmakers who oppose the reform warned of dire threats to public safety and everyday life in the state.

After nearly an hour and a half of discussion Friday, the chamber voted 25–23 to refer the bill in its current form to the House Finance Committee, where some lawmakers have indicated it could face a critical reception. Of those 25 yes votes, three members formally expressed reservations with the plan.

Some of those who spoke out against the proposal included members of the finance panel where SB 3335 goes next. Rep. Gene Ward (R), for one, warned that if the bill becomes law, “homelessness is going to be catalyzed by the increase in use of marijuana.”

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 allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and up to five grams of cannabis concentrates.

The legislation’s House sponsor, Rep. David Tarnas (D), called the bill “a reasonable and moderate and measured approach to regulating the legal use of cannabis by adults in Hawaii.”

“Legalizing cannabis for use by adults will actually have significant public safety and public health benefits for our community,” he said. “It will better protect youth from drug use through education and investment in youth programs. It will reduce drug violence. It will promote public safety by allowing people to buy from legitimate businesses not on the illegal market. It will ensure that the cannabis products purchased are safe, free from contaminants like fungus and mold or even worse, methamphetamine and fentanyl. It will allow us to tax and regulate cannabis products, which currently provide no tax or revenue to the state.”

The Senate passed a version of the bill earlier this month, and in recent weeks it’s been making its way through several House committees.

Ward noted in his floor comments, however, that Lopez’s office itself has said that she does not support the reform.

“For some reason, some people think that the black market is going to go away because of what we’ve got here,” he said. “We have to remember that the AG said that this is not something that she supports.”

“There’s one word that we’ve not mentioned in this whole debate,” he added, “and that’s the h-word: ‘homeless.’ We have a mental crisis among the homeless. The most accessible thing to them is marijuana, even though it’s the cheap wine and the booze that they’re doing also.”

Legalization would undermine the state’s efforts to combat the housing crisis, Ward continued, “because of the way that marijuana affects the economy, the people, and particularly the youth.”

But it wasn’t only GOP members who rose in opposition. Democratic Majority Whip Rep. Scot Matayoshi said he didn’t think colleagues “should vote with reservations or vote in favor of this bill just to see it move along.”

“I just want to encourage the body to vote on the bill before us,” he said. “We can’t be voting on what the bill might be. 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.”

Nikos Leverenz, of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, told Marijuana Moment that the opposition votes on the House floor by some members of the Finance Committee casts “a good deal of doubt on whether the bill will even be heard” by the panel at all.

“It’s unfortunate that so many legislators are still forwarding tiresome assertions from the criminal legal lobby, which includes the medical establishment and state agencies, on sensible reform,” he said in an email. “While continually overstating the risks of cannabis use, opponents fail to acknowledge serious harm posed to children and adults by continued criminalization. Yet so many of those against adult-use legalization are also against any cannabis sentencing reform.”

Matayoshi, the majority whip, has warned the Finance Committee could be an obstacle for the bill, telling a reporter earlier this month that the committee “is dealing with a lot of different challenges this year” and that “the budget is very underwater, very in the red.”

The proposal to legalize marijuana—in the last Democratically controlled state where the plant remains prohibited—has divided lawmakers and especially Democrats in recent months. While some have boasted that the bill is positioned to create one of the best regulated cannabis markets in the country, others have cautioned that legalization would increase youth use, illicit sales, mental health problems, violence and general criminal activity.

“I think that this bill is taking the best practices across the nation amongst other 24 states that have already passed a legalization bill to try to do something to address the issues that we currently face,” Rep. Cedric Gates (D) said at a committee hearing last week, “whether it’s people selling CBD products or hemp-derived products in our communities with no regulation or going after individuals or entities selling to our youth.”

Speaking against the bill at the committee hearing, meanwhile, was former Gov. Linda Lingle (R), who said it was her first time testifying before the legislature in the 14 years since she’s left office.

Enacting the reform would cause a host of problems, she argued, saying it will “lead to increased mental health problems, particularly for teenagers; it will negatively impact the state’s economy because legalizing marijuana will discourage Japanese tourists and families from everywhere from visiting Hawaii; it will cause more fatal car crashes; it will increase black market sales of the drug; it will result in four times as much in healthcare and related costs over what you might collect in taxes.”

“I say if we’re an outlier and we’re one of the states that doesn’t legalize recreational marijuana, good for us,” she concluded. “I think that makes us a better state.”

The proposal has seen a number of amendments since it was first introduced. A change around labor peace agreements for cannabis businesses, for example, was made in committee last week.

Previously, two panels at a joint hearing made a number of amendments that eased rules and penalties that many advocates had called too harsh.

Here are the key provisions of the bill, SB 3335:

  • The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and up to five grams of concentrates as of January 1, 2026.
  • Home cultivation would be legal, with adults allowed to grow up to six plants and keep as much as 10 ounces of resulting marijuana.
  • The measures would create the Hawaii Hemp and Cannabis Authority to license and regulate adult-use cannabis businesses and the state’s hemp industry.
  • That body would be overseen by an appointed Cannabis Control Board, led by an executive director who would need to have experience in public health or cannabis regulation.
  • Cultivators, processors, medical dispensaries, adult-use retailers, craft dispensaries and independent testing laboratories would be licensed under the plan, with regulators able to adopt rules around special events, social consumption and other special use cases.
  • Adult-use cannabis products would be taxed at 14 percent, while medical cannabis would be subject to a 4 percent tax. Industrial hemp would continue to fall under the state’s general sales tax.
  • Tax revenue from marijuana sales would be divided between a law enforcement-focused fund and another that would promote “cannabis social equity, public health and education, and public safety.”
  • A recent amendment blanked out all appropriations values in the legislation, an effort to force lawmakers to renegotiate those numbers.
  • People with past felony convictions for cannabis would be eligible to be licensed or work in the legal cannabis industry after 10 years from the end of their incarceration, parole or supervised release.
  • The mere use of cannabis would not be grounds for revoking parental custody, preventing parole or probation or withholding state benefits or entitlements.
  • Driving under the influence of cannabis would remain illegal, with the bill setting a legal limit of 10 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.
  • The bill would provide state-level tax relief for licensed marijuana businesses, allowing them to take deductions that they’re barred from doing at the federal level under Internal Revenue Service code 280E.
  • People with felony convictions on their criminal records could not enter the industry as a licensee or employee until 10 years after their sentences are complete.
  • The possession, manufacture and sale of cannabis paraphernalia would be legal among adults.
  • The bill also would create new criminal penalties for people under 21 found in possession of marijuana, who could face up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for possession of up to three grams.
  • The bill currently includes an effective date of December 31, 2050 “to encourage further discussion.”

As for expungements around past marijuana offenses, earlier this month a Senate panel gutted a House-passed bill that initially would have directed the state to automatically expunge tens of thousands of arrest and conviction records for low-level marijuana possession. The amended bill instead limits the relief to a one-county pilot program covering less than 15 percent of state residents.

Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that later stalled the House, but advocates are 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 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.

In November, the AG’s office defended an earlier version of the legislation it put forward earlier that month after Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said law enforcement were firmly against legalizing marijuana. David Day, a special assistant with the attorney general’s office, said at the time that the legalization measure deliberately took into account law enforcement perspectives.

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 last month 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.

The proposal has support from some state agencies, such as the Disability and Communications Access Board and governor’s Office of Wellness and Resilience (OWR), as well as a variety of reform advocates, including the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center and the Clarity Project.

Opponents include some medical groups, including the Hawaii Medical Association and Hawaii Academy of Family Physicians, which said there’s still too little information about the safety and efficacy of psilocybin.

House GOP Committee Urges Opposition To Marijuana Banking Bill, Saying ‘Gateway Drug’ Causes ‘Violence, Depression And Suicide’

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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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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