The Hawaii Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to legalize marijuana as well as separate legislation to significantly expand the state’s existing decriminalization law.
Under the legalization proposal—which advanced at a joint meeting of the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees last week—adults would be allowed to possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate the plant for personal use. It cleared the full chamber in a 20-5 vote.
The other piece of legislation would build upon the state’s existing decriminalization policy, where possession of three grams or less of marijuana is punishable by a $130 fine and no threat of jail time. The Senate passed legislation to increase that threshold to 30 grams, or just over an ounce, in a 24-1 vote.
Both pieces of legislation now head to the House for consideration. Should they get final approval from the legislature, however, it still remains to be seen how Gov. David Ige (D) will approach them.
During an interview this month, the governor declined to say whether he would sign or veto a legalization bill if it arrived on his desk, but he said the ongoing federal prohibition on marijuana creates complications that would factor into his decision.
“I’d have to look at it. I do have concerns. Marijuana is still a Schedule I substance, which is highly regulated by the federal government,” he said. “Until that is changed, it is confusing for the public to think that it’s legalized here but, if they were to carry it beyond certain quantities, they could actually end up getting prosecuted and sent to prison for a very long time.”
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That said, Hawaii already has a medical cannabis market in place in violation of federal law. The adult-use legalization proposal would specifically maintain the medical program, allowing registered patients to possess up to four ounces. It would also require the state Department of Health to craft rules around business licensing and retail sales by July 1, though it’s not yet clear when stores would open.
“This is a landmark day for cannabis reform in Hawaii. It is now incumbent upon House leadership to ensure that this bill moves forward,” Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii (DPFH), told Marijuana Moment. “Adult-use legalization of cannabis promises to create many new quality jobs in agriculture, retail, and other businesses impacted by production and distribution.”
“This bill is also a significant reform of Hawaii’s criminal legal system, which has included over 1,000 arrests for cannabis possession each year,” he added. “It should be strengthened to include social equity measures that will help ensure direct participation of Native Hawaiians and others disproportionately impacted by eight decades of cannabis prohibition.”
The governor’s concerns aside, both cannabis measures that cleared the Senate on Tuesday passed by veto-proof supermajorities.
The Hawaii Senate Judiciary Committee did approve a marijuana legalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance further.
When it comes to decriminalization, Ige wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter of the initial reform bill and allowed it to take effect without his signature. He described it as “a very tough call” and said he went “back and forth” on the issue before letting it be enacted. He also previously vetoed legislation to add opioid use disorder as a medical cannabis qualifying condition.
That track record signals that broader policy changes could similarly face resistance from the governor.
In other drug policy news, a Hawaii proposal that would have legalized psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use was also introduced this session, but that measure stalled in committee last month.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.