Hawaii lawmakers have officially filed bills to legalize marijuana in the state on Thursday, and advocates are optimistic that the reform may finally be enacted with a new pro-legalization governor in office.
Rep. Jeanné Kapela (D) and Sen. Chris Lee (D) are sponsoring the companion legislation in their respective chambers, with more than a dozen initial cosponsors signed on in total. The measures were partly informed by the finalized recommendations for legalization that a state task force developed last year.
Kapela talked about her plans to file the legislation during a press briefing last week with representatives of major advocacy organizations—including the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), ACLU of Hawaii and Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.
“We now have a roadmap for legalizing recreational cannabis in our islands,” she said. “Legalizing cannabis is not just a matter of money, it is a matter of moralities.”
Adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to four ounces of cannabis and grow up to 10 plants in a locked area.
People could buy a maximum of four ounces from licensed retailers every 15 days, and adults could gift cannabis without remuneration.
The state attorney general would need to identify cannabis cases that are eligible for expungement by December 31, 2025 and issue automatic expungements no later than January 1, 2026.
Landlords could not ban possession or consumption of non-inhaled cannabis, with limited exceptions.
A nine-member Hawaii Cannabis Authority would be established, with appointments made by the governor and legislative leaders. The body would be responsible for promulgating rules for the adult-use program and issuing marijuana business licenses.
Existing medical cannabis dispensaries could start applying for dual licenses to serve adult consumers starting January 1, 2024, and those dispensaries would have a three-year exclusivity period.
Businesses that don’t currently have a licensed dispensary could apply for adult-use cultivator and distributor licenses starting January 1, 2024.
Fees and fines would go to a “Cannabis Authority Special Fund” that would cover the administrative costs of implementing the program.
Regulators would be tasked with creating grant, loan and technical assistance programs to support social equity applicants who’ve been disproportionately harmed by the drug war.
Social equity applicants would have 50 percent of their license fees waived for owners who had less than $750,000 in income the prior year.
The state’s medical cannabis law would be amended to allow out-of-state patients to access dispensaries.
The sales tax on cannabis would gradually increase from five percent in 2024 to 15 percent in 2028.
Marijuana businesses would be permitted to deduct business expense at the state level.
Medical cannabis sales would not be subject to a general excise tax.
Local counties could not prohibit marijuana businesses from operating in their jurisdiction.
Delivery services would be prohibited.
Marijuana businesses could establish social consumption lounges.
The criminal prohibition of marijuana paraphernalia would be lifted.
Smoking in public, or anywhere that bans tobacco smoking, would be prohibited.
“Legalization of cannabis for personal or recreational use is a natural, logical, and reasonable outgrowth of the current science of cannabis and attitude toward cannabis,” the bill’s introductory text says. “The legislature further finds that cannabis cultivation and sales hold potential for economic development, increased tax revenues, and reduction in crime.”
Legislators have worked to enact legalization in the Aloha State over several sessions, but while the reform was approved in the Senate in 2021, it stalled after failing to proceed past a House committee by a key deadline.
“The Hawaii legislative session is off to a promising start with legalization measures introduced in both chambers,” DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel at MPP told Marijuana Moment. “MPP and allied organizations are pushing for amendments to the bills we’ve seen thus far and we’re anticipating additional proposals will be introduced as the bill introduction deadline approaches on January 25.”
“But the number of bills and legislative sponsors so far is definitely an encouraging sign that the message of cannabis legalization seems to be resonating with lawmakers in Hawaii,” he said.
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Advocates struggled under former Democratic governor, Dave Ige, who has resisted legalization, in part because he said he was reluctant to pass something that conflicts with federal law. That’s despite the fact that Hawaii has a medical marijuana system that allows people to grow and sell cannabis in contravention of broad federal prohibition.
But now that Gov. Josh Green (D) has been sworn in, activists are feeling emboldened. He said in November that he’d sign a bill to legalize cannabis for adults and already has ideas about how tax revenue from marijuana sales could be utilized.
This is a welcome development for advocates, who have spent years working with lawmakers to develop a bill to tax and regulate cannabis in the state only to consistently have the governor airing skepticism about the reform.
In 2020, Ige allowed a bill to become law without his signature that decriminalized possession of up to three grams of cannabis, making the offense punishable by a $130 fine, without the possibility of incarceration. But even then he was reluctant, describing it as “a very tough call” and saying he went “back and forth” on the issue.
Meanwhile, a Hawaii Senate committee approved a bill last year to make it so people 65 and older could automatically qualify for medical marijuana, regardless of whether they had a diagnosed condition that would otherwise make them eligible. But that legislation was not ultimately enacted last session.
The state legislature adopted a resolution in 2021 that asks the state to seek an exemption from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stipulating that it is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference. The House approved an identical measure in March 2021, but it only applied to that chamber.
Lawmakers in the state have separately worked to advance modest psychedelics reform legislation. A House committee approved a Senate-passed resolution to request that the state form of a psilocybin working group that would explore the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic, but it stalled out as well.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.