Hawaii lawmakers on Wednesday voted to move forward with a bill that would legalize marijuana sales in the state and allow adults 21 and over to grow the plant at home. The vote comes a day after a Senate panel approved separate legislation to significantly increase the amount of cannabis that is decriminalized under current state law.
Another Senate committee voted last month to advance both measures, which will now proceed to the Senate floor.
Wednesday’s vote in favor of legalization came at a joint meeting of the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees. Members of the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance the measure, while two members of the Ways and Means Committee, Sens. Sharon Moriwaki and Lorraine Inouye, both Democrats, voted in opposition.
The proposal, Senate Bill 767, would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use. The state Department of Health would craft rules around business licensing and retail sales by July 1, though it’s not yet clear when stores would open.
The bill would leave intact the state’s existing medical marijuana system, which allows registered patients to possess up to four ounces of cannabis. Driving under the influence would remain illegal under the proposal, and employers could continue to restrict workers from consuming cannabis or screen them for past use.
Lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing did not debate the legislation or take public comment, instead moving quickly through the morning’s agenda.
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Sen. Karl Rhoads (D), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at the hearing that the panel recommends approving the legalization bill with a number of small amendments, most of which are aimed at harmonizing the change with existing laws on matters such as taxes and criminal penalties.
One amendment would prohibit cannabis consumption anywhere alcohol is banned, Rhoads said, while another would slightly increase the proposed marijuana possession limit from one ounce (about 28.5 grams) to 30 grams.
Rhoads headed a Senate panel that two years ago passed a different legalization proposal out of committee, although the measure stalled after that.
Hawaii lawmakers have since removed criminal penalties for possessing very small amounts of cannabis, replacing the punishment with a $130 fine and no possibility of jail time. That law, which took effect early last year, covers possession of up to three grams of marijuana.
A bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, SB 578, would increase that threshold to 30 grams, or just over an ounce. The full Senate is expected to consider that bill next week.
A proposal that would have legalized psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use was also introduced this session, but that measure stalled in committee last month.
The marijuana bills are moving along despite uncertainty about how they would be received by Gov. David Ige (D), who has strongly opposed cannabis reforms in the past. When lawmakers passed the decriminalization bill in 2019, Ige described it as “a very tough call” and said he went “back and forth” before ultimately letting the bill become law without his signature. He previously vetoed legislation that would have added opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis.
In written testimony submitted ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, the office of state Attorney General Clare E. Connors (D) and other opponents urged lawmakers to halt the legalization proposal, saying it would be difficult to enforce and would put Hawaii at odds with federal law.
Prosecutors in Maui, meanwhile, said that while SB 767 is “well intentioned when solely considering the economic impact on our State,” the proposal “fails to social and health impacts of marijuana legalization.”
Other prosecutors, however, said the time has come to end cannabis prohibition.
“This Bill recognizes that the war on drugs that began in the 1930s and continues until the present day has largely been a failure,” wrote prosecutors in Kaua’i County. “While we express no position regarding the provisions of this Bill relating to the details of licensure and taxation, we support the underlying policy provisions of this measure.”
Drug reform advocates cheered Wednesday’s vote as a step forward but called for lawmakers to pay more attention to social and racial equity in the the legalization proposal.
“The bill could be improved by placing social equity provisions to help ensure participation by Native Hawaiians, who have borne disproportionate harms related to the ‘war on cannabis’ and Hawaii’s criminal legal system over decades,” Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii (DPFH), told Marijuana Moment in an email after Wednesday’s committee vote. “Those with prior cannabis convictions should be allowed to participate in Hawaii’s emerging cannabis economy. Additional protections for medical cannabis patients and care providers are also needed, as are protections for use and ensuring that those under 21 are not over-criminalized.”
He noted that between 2010 and 2017, there have been an average of more than a thousand cannabis possession arrests each year in Hawaii, “with Native Hawaiians composing a plurality of that number.”
He nevertheless called the vote “another important step” on Hawaii’s path to reform. “Should the bill move to the House,” Leverenz said, “hopefully its leadership will keep the reform momentum going.”
The proposal is likely to have the support of House Speaker Scott Saiki (D), who introduced his own marijuana legalization bill back in 2013.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor