Hawaii Senate Panels Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill, Sending It To Floor Vote Expected Next Week

A pair of Senate committees in Hawaii has advanced a bill that would legalize marijuana in the state, adopting a number of amendments to the underlying proposal before sending it to the chamber floor where a vote is expected next week.

Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that later stalled the House, but advocates are hopeful this year’s proposal could get further. Gov. Josh Green (D) 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.

There’s still more work to be done on this year’s more-than-300-page bill, which was formally introduced in both chambers in January and is largely based on a legalization plan unveiled by state Attorney General Anne Lopez (D).

One change adopted by the Senate Ways and Means and Commerce and Consumer Protection committees on Friday, for example, blanked out all the bill’s funding numbers “to reflect the ongoing discussion going on at the legislature right now,” according to the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D), who also chairs the commerce panel.

The bill, SB 3335, faces a crossover deadline of next Thursday, March 7, meaning a Senate floor vote is likely in the coming days.

Other changes adopted at Friday’s hearing adjusted provisions around hemp, criminal justice and licensing provisions.

People with past felony cannabis convictions, for one, would be able to apply for licenses and employment in the legal marijuana industry. They would qualify after 10 years from the end of their incarceration, probation or supervised release.

Another change approved by the committees clarified that possession and distribution of marijuana paraphernalia would be legal. Keohokalole told colleagues that activity is “already legal, so they’re conforming amendments to existing changes that the legislature has made.”

The name of the regulatory agency that would oversee the legal marijuana market also was modified slightly. The newly proposed name, the Hawaii Hemp and Cannabis Authority, would reflect the body’s handling of hemp matters in addition to marijuana.

“I think we’re really close,” Sen. Tim Richards (D) said at the joint hearing. “I’m going to be supporting with reservations, just because I think we still got a little bit we need to do, but I think we’re close.”

Sen. Sharon Y. Moriwaki (D), meanwhile, said she had “concerns about the cannabis,” saying the state still has work to do around medical marijuana. She also said that as the state works to discourage alcohol use, “I see this as kind of counter to that,” warning of “a lot of problems in the community.”

Republican Sen. Kurt Fevella said he couldn’t support the bill “because we have no parameters, really, on how this is gonna be.”

“You guys all know I support hemp,” he said, “but with this cannabis pleasuring thing, I cannot support the bills.”

In submitted testimony, law enforcement in the state sharply opposed the bill.

The state Department of Law Enforcement, for example, said in submitted testimony that it has “serious concerns” about the bill. It cited a controversial report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), in Colorado, claiming that fatal car crashes that could be linked to marijuana “nearly doubled between 2013 to 2020.”

“If cannabis were to be legalized in an adult use system for Hawaii, then it is highly probable that the rate of fatal car crashes and roadway deaths in Hawaii would very likely increase, especially amongst young drivers in Hawaii,” the department argued.

If the measure does move forward, the Department of Law Enforcement added, it wants more money to “offset the substantial predictable illegal activity that our community will see,” asking for at least $2 million in funding to the agency’s enforcement unit and 17 new enforcement staff.

The state Department of Education also expressed “strong concerns” with the proposal and “the potential impacts it could have,” noting that THC could impair brain development in young people and pointing to a study showing an increase in youth use after adult-use legalization.

“Therefore, if Hawaii legalizes adult recreational cannabis use,” wrote Superintendent Keith T. Hayashi, “it must also invest in prevention and education initiatives.”

Legalization advocates, meanwhile, have called on lawmakers to pass the legalization proposal—but only after making changes to address what they say is a incomplete plan for legalization.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said that the bill in its current form “takes an overly punitive approach and fails to include a sufficient commitment to equity.”

“Alarmingly,” O’Keefe told the panels, “the bill could result in more people being ensnared in the criminal justice system for cannabis instead of less.”

She also pushed back against some claims made by opponents, contending that “many prohibitionists’ claims are untethered to reality.” Teen use has in fact gone down since legalization in legal states, MPP’s testimony says, and there has not been an increase in psychosis in those jurisdictions.

ACLU of Hawaii said it supports adult-use cannabis legalization, but complained that “this draft falls short of the of the robust social equity and reparative justice reforms required to address the harms and collateral consequences of cannabis arrest and conviction records that last a lifetime.”

“Notably, these harms have disparately impacted Native Hawaiians,” ACLU added. “Native Hawaiians do not use drugs at drastically different rates from people of other races or ethnicities, but Native Hawaiians go to prison for drug offenses more often than people of other races or ethnicities.”

A number of advocacy groups joined together as part of the Hawai’i Alliance for Cannabis Reform, which also submitted written testimony. That group, which includes member organizations MPP, ACLU of Hawaii, the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i, the Last Prisoner Project, the Hawaii Innocence Project and Doctors for Drug Policy Reform, among others, wrote that while it’s important to end cannabis prohibition, it’s crucial it’s done so in a balanced way.

“We heartily support protecting health and safety as part of legalization. However, the AG-drafted bill’s singular focus has resulted in an approach that is overly focused on law enforcement and recriminalization, and that will continue to do life-changing damage to responsible cannabis consumers for behavior that endangers no one,” the alliance wrote. “We urge an approach to cannabis legalization that focuses far more on reinvesting in communities, reparative justice, and building an equitable and inclusive industry — and that avoids ramping up law enforcement and criminalizing innocuous behavior.”

Nikos Leverenz of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i told Marijuana Moment after Friday’s votes that “Hawaii should prepare itself for prospective participation in the national and global cannabis marketplace.”

“Those who oppose adult-use legalization are not just on the wrong side of history,” he said. “They are on the wrong side of a more just, humane, and prosperous future.”

Lopez, the attorney general, for her part, said in written testimony to the Senate panels that “while the Department does not support the legalization of cannabis, I am proud of what we presented here today.”

“This is a reasonable, moderate bill,” she wrote, “that sought to balance a myriad of interests with significant known and unknown risks.”

Here’s are the key provisions of the bill, SB 3335:

The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and up to five grams of concentrates as of January 1, 2026.
Home cultivation would be legal, with adults allowed to grow up to six plants and keep as much as 10 ounces of resulting marijuana.
The measures would create the Hawaii Cannabis Authority to license and regulate adult-use cannabis businesses.
That body would be overseen by a five-member appointed Cannabis Control Board, led by an executive director who would need to have experience in public health or cannabis regulation.
Cultivators, processors, medical dispensaries, adult-use retailers, craft dispensaries and independent testing laboratories would be licensed under the plan, with regulators able to adopt rules around special events, social consumption and other special use cases.
Adult-use cannabis products would be taxed at 14 percent, while medical cannabis would be subject to a 4 percent tax. Industrial hemp would continue to fall under the state’s general sales tax.
Tax revenue from marijuana sales would be equally divided between a law enforcement-focused fund and another that would promote “cannabis social equity, public health and education, and public safety.”
People with convictions for activities made legal under the bill would be able to petition to have their records expunged.
People with past felony convictions for cannabis would be eligible to be licensed or work in the legal cannabis industry after 10 years from the end of their incarceration, parole or supervised release.
Driving under the influence of cannabis would remain illegal, with the bill setting a legal limit of 10 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.
The bill would provide state-level tax relief for licensed marijuana businesses, allowing them to take deductions that they’re barred from doing at the federal level under Internal Revenue Service code 280E.
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.
The bill currently includes an effective date of December 31, 2050 “to encourage further discussion.”

Two other Senate panels previously amended and approved the cannabis legalization bill at a joint hearing last month,

Democrats in control of Hawaii’s Senate 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.

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. 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.

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 Green took office, activists have felt more emboldened. Green 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.

As for other drug policy matters, lawmakers last month 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.

The proposal has support from some state agencies, such as the Disability and Communications Access Board and governor’s Office of Wellness and Resilience (OWR), as well as a variety of reform advocates, including the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center and the Clarity Project.

Opponents include some medical groups, including the Hawaii Medical Association and Hawaii Academy of Family Physicians, which said there’s still too little information about the safety and efficacy of psilocybin.

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