As Hawaii’s new legislative session kicks off this week, Democrats in control of the Senate say that legalizing marijuana for adults remains a top policy priority for the new year, framing the reform as a means to boost the state’s economy.
The Senate majority announced their legislative priorities in a release last week, listing cannabis legalization among a host of other issues around emergency preparedness, workforce development, education, natural resources and housing.
The marijuana mention appears in a section about economic development and infrastructure. “The Senate remains committed to diversifying and expanding Hawai‘i’s economy, as well as improving infrastructure throughout the State,” the document says:
“In 2024, the Senate will focus on utilizing private-public partnerships and off-balance sheet financing proposed by the Department of Budget and Finance to identify alternative revenue streams for programs and projects; increasing investments in repairs of State facilities on each island; exploring renting out vacant State-owned facilities to generate revenue; investing in emerging industries to diversify the economy, such as film and technology; improving access to potable water; improving transit-oriented development infrastructure; improving and maintaining aging school structures; expanding alternative energy infrastructure through the installation of electric vehicle charging stations and the wheeling of electricity; exploring energy alternatives for self-sufficiency; funding new jail, prisoner, and reentry programs; and legalizing adult-use recreational cannabis.”
The comments from Senate leadership came on the heels of a revised draft legalization bill submitted to lawmakers earlier this month by Attorney General Anne Lopez (D). Lopez emphasized when announcing the bill that she “does not support the legalization of adult-use cannabis,” though her office said it will also not oppose passage of cannabis legislation as long as it contains certain key provisions.
Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that has stalled the House. But legislators—and Lopez herself—have signaled that 2024 may be the year that legalization becomes law.
“I’ve changed our position from opposition to ‘that train has left the station,’” Lopez said at a confirmation hearing last year.
“This could well be the year Hawai’i listens to voters and replaces cannabis prohibition with legalization and regulation,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “The Hawai’i Senate continues to prioritize this important opportunity to foster liberty, justice, and economic growth. And the legislature now has a comprehensive vehicle drafted by the AG that can serve as a starting point.”
Nikos Leverenz, of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, said in an email to Marijuana Moment that the announcement from Senate Democrats “recognizes the potential for adult-use cannabis sales to bring in needed tax revenues.” But he warned that Lopez’s latest legalization bill “is problematic insofar as is apportions future proceeds to special funds” rather than leaving spending to the legislature.
The 316-page measure from the attorney general would create and direct tax revenue to number of special funds, including around cannabis regulation, social equity, public health and education, law enforcement and nuisance abatement.
“Behavioral health treatment access, youth programs, school facility improvements, social equity programs, and science-based public education and research can all benefit from additional revenue,” Leverenz said. “Yet the legislature should generally have the discretion to use revenues according to its year-to-year budget priorities.”
He also warned against excessive regulations, which he said could blunt the economic benefits of legalization. “The current medical cannabis and industrial hemp sectors highlight the economic shortcomings of excessive regulations and bureaucratic resistance to making needed adjustments,” Leverenz said.
O’Keefe at MPP said the bill drafted by Lopez’s office “needs revisions to avoid creating prohibition 2.0,” pointing to rules like safe storage and a strict THC driving limit that doesn’t necessarily suggest impairment.
“Most legalization laws include modest civil fines for minor violations. In contrast, the AG-drafted bill imposes harsh criminal penalties for anything but ‘strict compliance,'” she said. “An elderly couple who live alone would face up to a year in jail if they store their cannabis in a glass jar they can open instead of a sealed child-resistant and resealable packaging with original labels. Meanwhile, an unscientific ‘per se’ standard will ensnare sober drivers long after impairment wears off.”
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 are firmly against legalizing marijuana in general and Lopez’s plan specifically.
David Day, a special assistant with the attorney general’s office, said at the time that Alm’s concerns were overblown and the legalization measure that’s been put forward deliberately took into account law enforcement perspectives.
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“The Department of Law Enforcement, which is that state’s leading law enforcement agency, worked collaboratively with the Department of the Attorney General on this bill,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is present a bill that tries to mitigate as many of those risks as possible.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman David Tarnas (D) said after Lopez initially unveiled the bill in November that the attorney general did “a really good job pulling together all of the different input and providing a comprehensive bill.” Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D), chair of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, called the measure “the best version to date.”
Meanwhile, the separate legalization bill that advanced through the Senate in March is still in play in the two-year legislative session.
Advocates 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 Gov. Josh Green (D) took office, activists have felt more emboldened. He 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, the Hawaii legislature also approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.
In August, a state psychedelics task force that was established under the governor’s office held its first meeting as experts work to prepare the state to potentially allow regulated access to novel therapies like psilocybin and MDMA.