Missed Deadline Means Hawai’i Fails to Legalize Cannabis, Again
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Hawai’i is unquestionably a ‘blue state’. Democrats hold a majority in both state legislative chambers, the state governor is a Democrat, and all but three of the Hawaiian congressional representatives ever elected to the U.S. House and U.S. Senate have been members of the Democratic party.
Hawai’i was the first state to enshrine in law their commitment to upholding the progressive climate policy of the Paris climate accord after President Trump announced that the United States would be formally withdrawing from the agreement. The state also takes a progressive and/or liberal stance in other policy areas. For example, it was the first state in the nation to raise the legal age of purchase for tobacco and e-cigarette products to 21, and the first state to file a legal challenge to President Trump’s proposed travel ban back in 2017.
This makes it all the more odd that Hawai’i has lagged behind its fellow blue states, such as California and Vermont, in so far failing to legalize the purchase, possession, and use of recreational marijuana.
Legalization bill fails to make it to the Senate
There have been numerous attempts to legalize recreational cannabis use in Hawai’i before; just three months after Colorado and Washington became the first states in the nation to legalize recreational cannabis in November 2012, Hawaiian state legislators put forward a bill which would do the same in Hawai’i. Unfortunately for supporters of full cannabis legalization, this bill, and other subsequent attempts at legalization through similar bills in the years to come, would fail to make it as far as a second reading in the chamber.
The 2019 legislative session saw the most recent in this string of efforts to legalize recreational cannabis use, and the initial reception of the bill was encouraging. Senate Bill 686, co-sponsored by half of the Democrats in the state Senate, became the first cannabis legalization bill to move past the Committee on the Judiciary, doing so in an unanimous bipartisan vote and securing a second reading.
The bill declared “that the legalization of cannabis for personal or recreational use is a natural, logical, and reasonable outgrowth of the current science of cannabis and [societal] attitude toward cannabis,” and would have legalized the recreational use of the drug for adults aged 21 and over. The bill would have also established the framework for a licensing scheme for the cultivation and sale of cannabis for personal use, as well as providing an outline for the taxation of the drug.
In order to move forward for consideration before the full state Senate, the bill had to pass through the Senate Health Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee by Friday, March 1. No meeting of the Health Committee was scheduled before this date to consider any bills, resulting in the death of this legalization effort before it could make it to the full Senate.
“Let’s do it right” — The future of cannabis law in Hawai’i
Speaking before the bill expired, Sen. Karl Rhoads, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Honolulu Civil Beat that he believed that 2019 would finally be the year where Hawai’i would legalize recreational cannabis use.
“I think the building is behind the electorate on this one,” he said, referring to opinion polls that show a rising majority of Hawaiians being in favor of legalization. “I would not at all be surprised if it passes this year.”
The House majority leader, Rep. Della Au Belatti, also said that she believes Hawai’i will legalize adult use cannabis “at some point”, according to the Associated Press. But she urges caution, and for lawmakers to use their due diligence in properly vetting the issue.
“I also think that we have enough folks who are sitting around the table who are saying ‘Let’s do it right. Let’s not just rush into things and let’s do it right’,” she said.
On a personal level, Belatti says that she wants to see cannabis decriminalized in Hawai’i, or at least a significant reduction in fines and criminal penalties for those caught possessing cannabis. But she explains that the state lawmakers will have to closely study what has unfolded in other states that have legalized recreational marijuana while operating a medicinal cannabis system — similar to the present situation in Hawai’i — to decide what is best. Belatti also told the Associated Press that she would like to see abuse prevention and education programs set up before any sort of legalization measures would go into effect.
She is not alone in expressing support for a ‘slow and steady’ approach. The Associated Press also reported Sen. Roz Baker, the Health Committee Chairwoman, noted that she would be hesitant to take any action that might threaten the state’s fledgling medical cannabis dispensary system. Additionally, she, along with Governor David Ige, expressed worry that while the current federal government does allow for the operation of medical cannabis systems, formally legalizing the drug for recreational use in Hawai’i might potentially lead to the federal government cracking down on cannabis use and proactively enforcing the federal drug law.
So long as the state governor has concerns about it, the legalization of adult use cannabis is unlikely to go ahead in Hawai’i. But pro-legalization groups can take heart from how far the bill made it through the state Senate, and the number of co-sponsors it was able to garner.
Further legalization bills and efforts in Hawai’i over the coming years are a certainty, and with the Democrats taking control of the U.S. House this year, a Presidential election in 2020, and the whisperings of future federal cannabis reform coming from government officials, it might not be long before Hawaiian legislators feel that the time is right for legalization.