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Hawaii Senators Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill, As State Agencies Undermine Pro-Reform Governor With Opposition Testimony



Two Hawaii Senate committees have approved a bill to legalize marijuana in a joint hearing, with lawmakers voting to advance it with a series of amendments on Tuesday after taking public testimony—including from several state agencies that strongly oppose or have concerns with the legislation in contrast with the pro-reform Democratic governor in whose administration they serve.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee both voted to pass the bill, which was formally introduced in both chambers last month and is largely based on a legalization plan unveiled by state Attorney General Anne Lopez (D).

The bill has proved fairly contentious, with advocates who support legalization criticizing provisions they view as excessively punitive and state agencies broadly arguing that ending prohibition would undermine public safety. That said, both sides have floated amendments to address their concerns, some of which were considered and adopted during Tuesday’s hearing.

Despite having largely informed the legislation—and defended it against early critiques from law enforcement—the attorney general’s office reiterated in testimony that the department “does not support the legalization of adult-use cannabis.”

However, if the legislature does move to enact legalization this session, the office said the bill “should be balanced and moderate, with a focus on protecting public health and public safety to the greatest extent possible.”

It also noted that the Department of Taxation proposed an amendment to restructure the cannabis tax policy provisions, making adult-use marijuana subject to a special excise tax of 14 percent and exempting it from the state general sales tax. Medical marijuana would be taxed at four percent.

Members of the committees adopted that tax amendment at Tuesday’s hearing. They also approved a proposal to clarify that the bill’s expungements provisions would not apply to convictions for “distribution.” Further, the panels added a defective date to the measure, a common legislative tactic in Hawaii that procedurally signals the bill is a continuing conversation and needs more work before it can be enacted.

A representative of the attorney general’s office did tell the committee that they feel the bill represents a “good faith effort toward protecting the public welfare and is an improvement on previous bills that have been heard by the legislature.”

The Office of the Public Defender testified in support of the legalization proposal, calling the reform “far overdue” and condemning criminalization as a failed approach.

“While this bill does not entirely remove the stigma associated with criminalization, perfection is the enemy of good and this is a step in the right direction,” it said. “It is time to bring the cannabis industry out of the shadows, regulate it, and implement a thoughtful and compassionate approach to cannabis use.”

The state Department of Law Enforcement (DLE) said they have “strong concerns” on the legalization bill, contending that it would lead to increased traffic fatalities and a larger illicit market.

If the state enacts legalization, “Hawaii can expect large seizures of illegal black-market cannabis to compete with limited law enforcement resources which it must also dedicate towards confronting illicit drugs (e.g., fentanyl and methamphetamine), ghost guns, and fireworks,” it said. “All these types of contraband are high enforcement priorities for the DLE and DLE’s resources will be taxed severely if large amounts of illegal cannabis flood the black market.”

The department also claimed that Colorado saw no “significant increases in tax revenues” after legalization. In reality, Colorado estimated late last year that it’s generated about $2.5 billion in marijuana tax revenue since retailers first opened in 2014.

DLE said that if the legislature does pass the legalization measure, it wants at least $2.5 million from the state “to provide the DLE with tools to even attempt to enforce the law.”

Superintendent of Education Keith Hayashi also voiced “strong concerns with the potential impacts this bill could have.” But he also said the measure could be improved with provisions to “invest in prevention and education initiatives.”

“In order to mitigate negative impacts on our youth, the Department would need additional funding for prevention programs teaching the harm associated with cannabis use; expanded school counseling and mental health support; and comprehensive training to help educators identify signs of use and its impact on academic performance,” the superintendent said.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) said that the bill “clearly differentiates industrial hemp from cannabis” and that it would provide “substantial protection for hemp farmers and will support the hemp industry into the future, should the Legislature choose to legalize cannabis.”

The prosecuting attorney of Hawaii opposed the bill, arguing in part that “the black market will increase” with legalization, and “there will be a greater chance of accidental use of fentanyl-laced marijuana.”

The Department of Health (DOH) said it remains “highly concerned about the public health and environmental impacts that increased accessibility of cannabis and opening of an adult use marketplace will bring.”

Testimony in opposition to the legislation also came from the City and County of Honolulu Police Department, County of Maui Police Department, County of Hawaii Police Department, County of Kauai Police Department and other law enforcement officials.

Here’s are the key provisions of the bill, SB 3335, as amended and approved in committee:

  • 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 Cannabis Authority to license and regulate adult-use cannabis businesses.
  • That body would be overseen by a five-member 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 four percent tax. Industrial hemp would continue to fall under the state’s general sales tax.
  • Tax revenue from marijuana sales would be equally divided between a law enforcement-focused fund and another that would promote “cannabis social equity, public health and education, and public safety.”
  • People with convictions for activities made legal under the bill would be able to petition to have their records expunged.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Advocates have criticized the bill for what they say is an overly strict approach to the reform, pointing to new criminal laws that would affect minors as well as restrictions that could risk perpetuating the harms of the drug war, such as the measure’s explicit assertion that the smell of marijuana can be used to justify searches.

But opposition from state agencies and law enforcement was also on full display during Tuesday’s hearing—with messaging about the potential consequences of legalization that significantly departs from how Gov. Josh Green (D) has discussed the reform.

The governor said last week that legalization is a “big social issue that remains” to be addressed in the state, and he’d likely sign a bill to end cannabis prohibition if one is sent to him by lawmakers.

“I don’t think the sky would fall, honestly, if marijuana were legalized,” Green told Hawaii News Now, adding: “I also have some thoughts that marijuana might blunt the effect, if you will, of people on these heavy drugs, these horrible drugs.”

Legalization advocates struggled under former Gov. Dave Ige (D), who resisted the reform 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’s said since 2022 that he’d sign a legalization bill.

Ige did allow a bill to become law without his signature in 2020 that decriminalized possession of just three grams of cannabis, making the offense punishable by a $130 fine without the threat of jail time. On Monday, a House committee approved separate legislation to increase the possession limit to one ounce and reduce the fine to $25.

Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

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

Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that has stalled the House. But legislators have signaled that 2024 may be the year that legalization becomes law.

In addition to the AG-drafted bill, a separate marijuana legalization measure that advanced through the Senate in March is also still technically in play in the state’s two-year legislative session.

Meanwhile in the Hawaii legislature, two House committees advanced a separate bill this month that would create explicit legal protections around the therapeutic use of psilocybin. Eligible patients would be able to possess and consume the psychedelic under a trained facilitator’s care.

South Carolina Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Bill On Initial Vote

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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