Push to legalize recreational cannabis underway in Hawaii

Jan. 12—A recent local government-led task force report on legalizing adult recreational cannabis use is neither for nor against making such a change in Hawaii, but a concerted push has begun for the Legislature to do it this year.

A recent local government-led task force report on legalizing adult recreational cannabis use is neither for nor against making such a change in Hawaii, but a concerted push has begun for the Legislature to do it this year.

Proponents of such legalization on Wednesday announced support for a bill to achieve the objective and also expunge past criminal records and end punishment for people charged with or convicted of offenses that wouldn't be offenses under an amended state law.

Rep. Jeanne Kapela (D, Volcano-­Naalehu-Hawaiian Ocean View ) has drafted a bill slated for introduction and aimed at permitting the legal use of cannabis by adults 21 or older beyond already regulated medical use under a system that would allow cultivation, retail sales and special taxation.

"It is time to stop making excuses, " she said on the rotunda of the state Capitol. "It is time to stop playing games with the lives of Hawaii's families who have been harmed by our state's rabid devotion to prosecuting cannabis use."

Hawaii is one of 29 states with laws against recreational adult use of marijuana, after Missouri left that group in November via a constitutional amendment approved by voters.

The Aloha State also is one of 37 states that permit medicinal cannabis use, and in 2019 also decriminalized carrying up to 3 grams of cannabis so that the penalty for such possession is a fine of up to $130.

One big encouraging factor in the legalization effort is new Gov. Josh Green, a physician, who has endorsed legalizing recreational cannabis use for adults over 21 with safeguards for minors.

Yet legislative leadership has appeared cool to the idea.

House Speaker Scott Saiki (D, Ala Moana-Kakaako-­Downtown ) and Senate President Ron Kouchi (D, Kauai-Niihau ) recently suggested they will proceed cautiously with the issue.

"I'm not one that's very excited about passing marijuana legislation, " Kouchi said on the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser's "Spotlight Hawaii " livestream program last month. "But I'm pragmatic if this is the direction of the caucus. The bill will go through if that's what they see."

In 2021 Senate Bill 767 proposing to legalize adult recreational marijuana use passed the full Senate 20-5 but failed to get a hearing in the House. Opponents of that bill included four county police departments, the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii and the Hawaii Family Forum.

Advocates for the new bill, which could be one of several introduced this year aimed at legalizing adult recreational marijuana use, include the ACLU of Hawaii, the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, and Last Prisoner Project, a Denver-based nonprofit promoting cannabis reforms.

"Twenty-one states have now recognized that cannabis prohibition is a failed policy, and only through legalization do we ensure consumer protection, labeling, packaging, product safety, testing and protections for minors, " DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, said during Tuesday's news briefing at the Capitol.

George Cordero, a legislative and legal assistant with the ACLU, called Kapela's bill sensible legislation that will end hindrances on issues including employment and housing for people convicted of simple marijuana possession.

"Too many people continue to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession, " he said.

Nikos Leverenz, president of the Drug Policy Forum, said more than 1, 000 arrests were made in Hawaii for simple cannabis possession from 2009 to 2018, and that Native Hawaiians disproportionally are prosecuted for drug offenses.

"It's time to move forward on this, " said Leverenz, who was on the 15-member task force created in 2021 by the Legislature. "Hawaii has a rare opportunity this year to move forward."

The recent report by the Dual Use Cannabis Task Force largely assessed ramifications of adding legal recreational marijuana to Hawaii's medical marijuana industry. The report delivered to lawmakers last month made recommendations on things including market structure, taxation and social equity.

For instance, the report estimated that state tax revenue from a mature regulated adult recreational marijuana market at $34 million to $53 million a year. But the report did not conclude whether legalizing recreational adult marijuana use should or should not be done.

"The Task Force was not asked to, and did not, consider whether there should be a dual use system, " the report said.

Kapela called the report a road map for legalization, and said taxes and fees from such an industry under provisions in her 116-page bill can be at least $50 million for the state to more than offset regulation costs.

"This year we stand on the precipice of history, " she said. "We all know, and Hawaii's people know, that it is high time to legalize recreational cannabis use for adults in Hawaii."