A marijuana legalization bill that was approved by the Hawaii Senate on Tuesday could be dead on arrival in the House, with a key committee chairman signaling that he might not even hold a hearing on the proposal.
That would effectively kill the legislation for the session. House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Nakashima (D) said in a recent interview that he thinks the state should focus on improving its existing medical cannabis system before advancing adult-use legalization.
“On legalization, I really think we need to get the medical marijuana program up and running in a much more healthy way before we’re ready for any kind of legalization,” he told Honolulu Civil Beat. “I really think the dispensaries really need to be given a chance to really perform.”
Contacted by Marijuana Moment about those remarks, Nakashima replied that the bill “will have to be considered in the Health Committee before I will have jurisdiction” in the Judiciary panel. He did not address a follow-up question about whether he would take up the legislation if it clears its first stop in the House.
Advocates have expressed frustration over procedural rules that allow a committee chair to singularly defeat legislation that has already advanced through the opposite chamber. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the legalization measure with a supermajority vote of 20-5 after going through the committee process there.
“Rep. Nakashima states that he’d like to ‘get the medical marijuana program up and running.’ Yet the dispensaries are in support of adult-use legalization provided that medical cannabis patients remain protected,” Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, told Marijuana Moment. “Dispensaries will have a competitive advantage when adult use is legalized, as was the case in Washington state. This includes those on Hawaii Island, which has a large shadow cannabis market.”
“However, legalization is not all about gross receipts and tax revenue,” he added. “The emerging cannabis economy can be shaped to provide tangible economic opportunities to Native Hawaiians and others disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and the larger drug war.”
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In the past, Nakashima has voted in favor of a measure to decriminalize marijuana, as well as a resolution urging the federal government to deschedule cannabis. Curiously, he’s also listed as a cosponsor of a separate bill to legalize cannabis that was introduced in the House in January—but insiders say this could be explained as a superficial courtesy that legislators will sometimes extend to their colleagues even if they personally oppose the legislation.
If he ultimately decides to stop the advancing legalization bill in its tracks, there’s still a separate, more modest piece of Senate-approved reform legislation that’s been transmitted to the House to expand the state’s decriminalization law. It would increase the possession threshold that carries a $130 fine without the threat of jail time from three to 30 grams, or about an ounce.
But when asked about cannabis reform prospects in the House, Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke (D) on Wednesday tempered expectations. She said that while she personally supports legalization, it was difficult for the chamber to even pass the earlier, three gram decriminalization bill.
“Regardless of how individuals feel, it is the vote of the majority—and I don’t really believe if we couldn’t even pass the decrim bill, I doubt if we can pass the legalization bill,” she said.
Watch Luke’s comments, about 32:00 into the video below:
Advocates are also concerned about Gov. David Ige (D), who recently declined to say whether he would sign or veto a legalization bill if it arrived on his desk, but argued that the ongoing federal prohibition on marijuana creates complications that would factor into his decision.
Ige wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter of the initial decriminalization 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.
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 Philip Steffan.