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With Legalization Dead For The Session, Hawaii Lawmakers Advance Incremental Bills To Expand Decriminalization And Provide Expungements



After a proposal to legalize marijuana in Hawaii fizzled out last week, lawmakers are moving forward with more modest cannabis reforms. On Friday, the House approved a Senate-passed a bill to expand the state’s limited decriminalization of possession, while a Senate committee approved a scaled-back expungements bill that would create a single-county pilot program aimed at clearing certain past offenses.

A separate bill to create a broader expungements-focused task force, meanwhile, also passed out of the House and now returns to the Senate.

The decriminalization bill, SB 2487, would decrease the fine for low-level marijuana possession from $130 to $25. That would apply to up to an ounce of cannabis—up from three grams under current law.

“I think this is a very reasonable bill,” Rep. David Tarnas (D) told colleagues on Friday, noting that at least 27 other states have set legalization or decriminalization thresholds at an ounce or more.

Possession of more than one ounce would still carry criminal penalties, and a new violation would punish public cannabis consumption with a $130 fine.

“I just want to make it very clear what this bill does,” Tarnas said. “It decriminalizes the possession of an ounce of cannabis or less. The possession of more than one ounce and less than two ounces is a petty misdemeanor. Possession of two ounces or more is a misdemeanor.”

House lawmakers approved the proposal on a 32–18 vote, with one member excused, sending it back to the Senate to consider changes made in a House committee last month.

Critics, such as Democratic Majority Whip Scot Matayoshi, who has opposed legalization and other marijuana reforms this session, spoke out against expanding decriminalization. He called the change “far too much for our state to bear at this time” and arguing that medical marijuana is already legal in the state.

The expungements bill, meanwhile—HB 1595—would create a pilot program that supportive lawmakers have described as a “significant first step” in erasing old criminal records.

As originally introduced, the bill would have directed the state to automatically expunge tens of thousands of arrest and conviction records for low-level marijuana possession. But the Senate Judiciary Committee last month gutted the proposal, replacing the statewide plan with a pilot program in Hawaii County that would apply only to non-conviction arrest records.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee approved the bill on a voice vote Friday, sending it to the Senate floor. It’s expected to be taken up on Tuesday.

If HB 1595 passes the full chamber by a Thursday deadline, it would then return to the House for consideration of recent changes.

The scaling back amendment came from the office of Attorney General Anne Lopez (D). Her office told Marijuana Moment in an interview last month that the issue was budgetary, claiming that “There simply isn’t the money available for new kinds of projects that aren’t deemed necessary or crucial to the recovery” following massive wildfires that tore through Maui last August.

“With one expunger working at the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center,” said Dave Day, special assistant to the attorney general, “we felt that a pilot project to show how that would work, and potentially what resources would be required for a larger expungement program, would be appropriate.”

Hawaii County comprises the Big Island and is state’s second most populous after Honolulu County, home to about 14 percent of the state’s population.

In a report from the Judiciary Committee, which restricted the scope of the bill, the panel said it “supports the intent of this measure and believes that such a pilot project regarding the expungement of non-conviction arrest records is a significant first step” in addressing individuals’ efforts to expunge past arrest records.

The full, statewide version of the bill was expected to bring relief to “approximately 30,000 people” eligible for expungements under the original proposal, sponsor Rep. David Tarnas (D) said earlier in the session.

As this week began, some observers speculated that the bill would not be taken up in committee in time to meet a legislative deadline. But lawmakers added it to the Ways and Means Committee calendar on Thursday, breathing new life into the proposal.

Leaders at ACLU of Hawaii, which earlier in the day was concerned the measure was dead for the session, told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that they were “jazzed that the advocacy paid off.”

Other advocates said on Friday that they were pleased to see the amended bill move forward, though they acknowledged the current proposal is a far weaker reform than the bill originally intended.

“HB 1595 would remove an economic life sentence for thousands of Hawaii residents and create a vital first step that could pave the way for broader state-initiated expungement down the road,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “But the House version was far stronger. It was shameful to see the AG’s office argue against wiping away records for simple possession convictions.”

“The Senate-amended bill applies only to arrests not resulting in conviction in a single county,” she added. “It is progress, but it is a timid step that will continue to leave tens of thousands with shattered dreams due to records for conduct that has been decriminalized.”

Groups providing written testimony in support of the measure included MPP, the Chamber of Sustainable Commerce, the Community Alliance on Prisons, the Democratic Party of Hawaii, ACLU of Hawaii, Opportunity Youth Action Hawai’i, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), the Hawaii Innocence Project and a number of individuals. None of the submitted testimony opposed the bill.

The House also passed another expungements-focused bill, SB 2706, on Friday. That measure would create a so-called Clean Slate Expungement Task Force that would be charged with crafting legislation for a state-led record-clearing program. It would include certain officials—including the attorney general, chief justice, public defender and various prosecutors—as well as representatives from various advocacy groups, including ACLU, LPP, the Hawaii Innocence Project and others.

While the expungements bill does not explicitly mention cannabis, marijuana-related offenses are widely expected to be included in the would-be task force’s discussions.

The House passed the expungements task force bill on a 47–3 vote Friday, with one member excused.

In submitted testimony to the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week, AG Lopez’s office wrote that it prefers approaching expungements through the proposed pilot program bill, HB 1595, which it described as “a more reasonable, cost-effective alternative.”

“If the legislature chooses to enact this bill,” it said, “the Department opposes the passage of Senate Bill No. 2706″—the expungements task force proposal.

As of 2019, according to a report on the bill from the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, “three hundred thousand residents of the State have been adversely affected by past criminal records, hindering their ability to access employment, housing, and other opportunities.”

Adrian Rocha, policy manager for LPP, told Marijuana Moment earlier this week that the organization is “committed to ensuring HB 1595 passes this session and are in contact with the Hawai’i Criminal Justice Data Center and other agencies to ensure the policy is workable and delivers relief.”

As for the broader legalization proposal, supporters and opponents have both pointed out that this session has marked the furthest any legalization measure has made it through Hawaii’s legislature.

The more-than-300-page bill was formally introduced in both chambers in January and is based on a legalization plan written by state Attorney General Anne Lopez (D), who was appointed in December 2022 by Gov. Josh Green (D), a supporter of legalization. It would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and up to five grams of cannabis concentrates.

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Tarnas, has already committed to bringing a revised bill next session.

“During the interim, I look forward to working with the Attorney General’s office to improve the language of the bill to address issues brought up during the House debate on this bill,” he told Marijuana Moment in an email last week. “I will be collecting factual information about public safety and public health concerns, including the assertion of some opponents that legalization would actually result in an increase in cannabis use by youth as well as an increase in fatal car crashes attributable to cannabis use.”

As for those claims, Tarnas continued, “I think the evidence shows that there is no evidence of any increase in use of cannabis by youth in legalization states, but I will gather the data and present it next session. Similarly, I think the evidence from legalization states shows that there has not been any demonstrable increase in car crashes by drivers that is attributable solely to cannabis use. But, I will gather the data on this topic and present it next session.”

While most of opposition to the bill came from law enforcement, some Democratic leaders also vocally opposed the reform. Matayoshi, for instance—the Democratic majority whip who also opposed decriminalization—said before last month’s House floor vote that he didn’t think colleagues “should vote with reservations or vote in favor of this bill just to see it move along.”

“We can’t be voting on a bill that has some good parts but also has an incredible harm to our society in the form of legalizing recreational marijuana,” he said.

Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that later stalled the House, but advocates were hopeful this year’s proposal could get further. Gov. Green said last month that legalization is a “big social issue that remains” to be addressed in the state, signaling that he’d likely sign a bill to end cannabis prohibition if lawmakers send him one.

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

Hawaii residents themselves seem to support the change. A recent Hawai’i Perspectives survey by the Pacific Resource Partnership found 58 percent support for legalization.

Advocates previously 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 Green took office, activists have felt more emboldened. The current governor 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, Hawaii’s legislature also approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.

As for other drug policy matters, lawmakers in February advanced a bill that would provide certain legal protections to patients engaging in psilocybin-assisted therapy with a medical professional’s approval. The measure would not legalize psilocybin itself but would instead create an affirmative legal defense for psilocybin use and possession in the case of doctor-approved use under the guidance of a trained facilitator.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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