Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) spoke about the state’s path to marijuana legalization this legislative session during an interview this week, calling the policy change a “big social issue that remains” to be addressed in the state and saying he’d likely sign a bill to end cannabis prohibition if one is sent to him by lawmakers.
But Green also said the change “is a little more complicated because the feds have not changed the way they schedule marijuana yet, which is really wacko.”
The governor also pushed back against opponents’ fears that legal cannabis would cause public health problems in the state, saying it could actually bring some benefits.
“I don’t think the sky would fall, honestly, if marijuana were legalized,” Green told Hawaii News Now in an interview that aired on Tuesday, adding: “I also have some thoughts that marijuana might blunt the effect, if you will, of people on these heavy drugs, these horrible drugs.”
Though Hawaii has among the lowest drug overdose death rates in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, 269 people died of drug overdoses in the state in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.
Cannabis, by contrast, “is a relative sedative,” the governor said.
“People are far less violent. They are much hungrier, but they—aside from the snacking and stealing Cheetos—will probably do less harm,” he quipped.
Legalization advocates struggled under former Democratic Gov. Dave Ige, 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.
Green wasn’t able to offer a solid prediction on whether this would be the year Hawaii adopts a legalization law, however, saying it depends on whether a reform bill clears the legislature.
“It could happen,” he said. “I still feel that we should allow adults to choose how they want to behave in every way, as long as they’re not hurting other people. And so I would sign a bill, if the legislature brought it up to the fifth floor.”
The proposal would need to be safe and not make it “too easy for kids to get,” he added.
“You have to be a little careful, that’s all,” Green said, noting that brains continue developing into a person’s 20s.
Legislation offered by Attorney General Anne Lopez (D) “has given some basic standards on safety that she’d like to see if we do pass it,” the governor said. That was formally introduced late last month by Rep. David Tarnas (D) in the House and Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D) in the Senate.
Legalization advocates have generally applauded the advancement of a framework for legalization, but they’ve also said that Lopez’s plan is too punitive and still frames marijuana as a law enforcement issue.
“Placing a velvet glove of legalization on law enforcement’s iron hand is not what is called for,” Nikos Leverenz, of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, told Marijuana Moment after the bill was formally introduced.
Some changes have been made to the proposal since it was offered by AG Lopez. Among them, the latest bill would raise the planned DUI limit on drivers from 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood to 10 ng/mL. But advocates have said the per se limit will still ensnare sober drivers who potentially used the drug days earlier.
Expungement language has also been added to the bill to create a process allowing people to have certain past cannabis convictions erased, but advocates say the process laid out in the current version is unclear. It says the records “shall be ordered to be expunged” but later refers to a petition process under which individuals could ask a court to expunge their records beginning in 2026.
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. People 18 to 20 could seek deferred prosecution and probation, however. Minors would be sent to family court and could petition the court for expungement after completing their sentences.
Advocates would also like to see the addition of nondiscrimination protections for people who consume cannabis, as other states have included.
Opponents of the legalization—including one of Green’s gubernatorial predecessors—however, spoke out against the proposed change at an event this week.
“I’m urging all of our legislators and the governor to think very hard about this, not to do it because others are doing it,” former Gov. Linda Lingle (R) said, according to an Island News report on the event
Lingle joined Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi (I), Prosecutor Steve Alm and four county police chiefs at the event, where the opponents expressed concerns about teen marijuana use.
“If you think increasing availability or making something more popular will cut down on these types of scenarios, you’re sorely mistaken,” Big Island Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz said, according to Honolulu Civil Beat.
According to a number of studies, however, most evidence shows that cannabis use has generally remained flat or even declined among teens since legalization. Among other research, a federally funded survey in 2022 concluded that legalization was not associated with increased teen use.
Others at the opposition event warned that the change would lead to more crime and a decrease in tourism.
In the Hawaii News Now interview, the governor also touched on the state’s medical marijuana program, saying he thought provisions were “restrictive.” He likened his stance on the issue to abortion.
“You know how we had this larger conversation about staying out of people’s business on women’s reproductive rights? We just said, ‘Look, that’s between a woman and her doctor,’” he said. “I feel that way about other things, like medical marijuana, and the rules have sometimes been restrictive for someone who chooses to manage their pain or anxiety or nausea with medical marijuana.”
“If I had my way, I would lift all those restrictions,” he continued, “so it simply was a matter between a physician and her patient. That would be fine, too, and that would go a long way.”
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 in play in the state’s two-year legislative session.
Meanwhile in the 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.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
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