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Hawai‘i senators squabble over recreational pot bill

LIHU‘E — While a bill to decriminalize recreational cannabis for adults passed Hawai‘i’s Senate 22-3 this week, its passage was not without heated debate over the merits of legalizing the nation’s most used illicit substance.

If it becomes law, Senate Bill 669 would allow for the cultivation, manufacture, sale and personal use of up to one ounce of cannabis, up to 10 grams of cannabis concentrate, or any other cannabis product with up to 800 milligrams of THC — the primary psychoactive component of cannabis.

But even as 86 percent of adult Hawai‘i residents support the legalization of marijuana, according to the Hawai‘i Cannabis Industry Association, bills proposed in previous years have all ultimately failed.

In the Senate, these stark divisions in opinion continue to hold strong.

Prior to Tuesday’s floor vote, Sharon Morikawi (D-District 12) stood in opposition, arguing that the state is not yet ready for legal cannabis.

“The Legislature decriminalized medical use of marijuana to help those suffering from pain,” she said. “We acted with compassion, and with medical parameters to protect persons from misuse of this drug. But crossing the threshold to personal use of this increasingly potent drug — even for a small amount — is premature.”

Morikawi also noted that the state’s attorney general, prosecutor, Department of Health and Department of Transportation have all released testimony in opposition to SB 669.

Additionally, Morikawi suggested the bill lacks significant regulatory safeguards, arguing the bill justifies cannabis misuse through tax revenue.

“This session, we’re making more stringent our drunk driving laws and controlling vaping,” she said. “How does decriminalizing cannabis for personal use fit in with these values? We must ask ourselves if we are enabling the abuse, should this bill pass.”

In response to these claims, Jarrett Keohokalole (D-District 24) — who co-introduced the bill — stood in support, arguing that SB 669 would actually act to better combat misuse of cannabis, particularly misuse by Hawai‘i’s youth.

“To address the correlation to the regulatory actions that we take on vaping and tobacco — to me, those are arguments in favor of bringing this industry into the light and regulating them effectively, so we can make sure we are managing for the predatory aspects of any commercial industry, cannabis included, to protect the health and safety of our children,” he said.

Keohokalole also argued that criminalizing marijuana has ultimately failed in limiting use in the first place.

“Prohibition on alcohol ended in this country 90 years ago because it was an unsuccessful policy,” he said. “It just does not work. It does not allow us to focus, from a public health standpoint, on the segments of our population that really need help and support. That’s why we got rid of the complete ban on alcohol, and that’s why that policy does not work as well for cannabis.”

Kurt Fevella (R-District 20) echoed Keohokalole’s comments on the benefits of regulation as he stood in support as well.

“I agree with my colleague from Kane‘ohe that we need to get them off the streets,” he said. “Because drugs that’s being sold on the streets, we’re not knowing what is safe, or (if) it’s laced with something. And people think it’s funny when they lace it with something, and somebody goes into a medical problem and has brain damage.”

Joy San Buenaventura (D-District 2) — another co-introducer of the bill — touted the state’s anticipated high standards for regulation as she stood in strong support.

“We are allowing licensed dispensaries — which are over-regulated if you listen to them, and actually have more stringent standards than any of the other states,” she said. “Our Department of Health labs inspect the cannabis for multiple toxins, for multiple pesticides, for multiple molds that other states do not inspect.”

San Buenaventura added that the bill only decriminalizes possession of up to 1 ounce — one-fourth of what’s allowed medically in the state.

However, Lorraine Inouye (D-District 1) noted in opposition that the potency of THC in cannabis has increased in recent decades, allowing users to smoke less to achieve a similar high. Of high concern to Inouye are the potential effects of ingesting such high amounts of THC.

“Researchers do not yet know the full extent of the consequences when the body and the brain — especially the developing brain — are exposed to high concentrations of THC, or how recent increases in potency affect the risk of someone becoming addicted,” she said, paraphrasing a 2020 statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, Angus McKelvey (D-District 6) — yet another co-introducer of the bill — suggested that regulating the state’s already existing, albeit underground, cannabis market would ultimately better benefit Hawai‘i residents as opposed to ignoring it.

“Right now, the revenue that’s generated — and it’s happening everywhere — goes to organized crime,” he said. “It goes to off-world figures. It doesn’t go to fund our schools. It doesn’t go to fund our communities. It doesn’t even go to fund addiction programs. It goes into the hands of criminals.”

He continued, “It’s happening all around us. It’s only by bringing it up and regulating it, and taxing it, and then providing new revenue for support for those who do struggle with addiction problems, that we can truly have this work for our communities instead of against it.”

SB 669 now moves to the state House of Representatives, where it appears to face slimmer odds of passing. In a recent episode of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawai‘i podcast, House Speaker Scott Saiki (D-District 25) said he would prefer to have a working group analyze the notion of recreational cannabis during the summer before the Legislature takes it to a vote.


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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