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Marijuana bill gains traction in Legislature

HILO, Hawai‘i — The long-anticipated legalization of recreational marijuana in Hawai‘i is only a few votes away from the desk of Gov. Josh Green.

Senate Bill 3335, which would establish regulatory bodies in state government to manage the sale of adult-use cannabis products, has only one committee hearing left to clear in the state Legislature after a House committee voted to pass the measure on March 19.

The current version of the bill would create a “Hawai‘i Cannabis and Hemp Authority” within the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, which would develop a regulatory framework that would allow the sale of cannabis products after a Jan. 1, 2026, legalization date. After that day, adults at least 21 years old would be allowed to consume cannabis products and personally grow their own.

There would still be caveats, of course: home growers would be limited to possess no more than 10 ounces of marijuana, and its use would still be prohibited in schools, public parks, state or county facilities, and elsewhere.

However, the latest draft of the measure does allow for colleges or universities to permit cannabis use in faculty or student housing at their own discretion.

Following the legalization date, the measure also would expunge any prior criminal records related to marijuana possession.

While the measure is generally popular among lawmakers and members of the public — the bill has received more than 1,000 pages of public testimony since its introduction — previous efforts at marijuana legalization were no less popular, and yet still failed to pass.

Last year’s attempt successfully passed the Senate, but stalled out in the House without ever receiving a hearing. While SB 3335 has made it farther, having passed multiple House committees, it has received substantial skepticism from representatives, 22 of whom voted against the measure at its second reading on March 15.

At the March 19 meeting of the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, Hilo Rep. Richard Onishi was one of three committee members to vote against the bill, saying predictions of a flood of marijuana-driven commerce and tax revenue are overly optimistic.

“I think the projections from the Department of Taxation are that it will take five years for us to reach the $50 million level,” Onishi told the Tribune-Herald on March 21. “And that’s a long time to wait. … If we just wanted to raise revenue, we’d get more by legalizing gambling, not that that’s what we should do.”

Onishi also said he believes the negative health impacts of marijuana should be seen as comparable to those of alcohol, and questioned how much resources other states that have legalized cannabis are spending to address those impacts.

“If the feds decide to downscale cannabis to a Schedule 3 drug, that’s one thing, and I think it would make sense to change then,” Onishi said. “We already passed a law to decriminalize 3 grams of cannabis or less (in 2019), and I thought that was the right step. I voted for that.”

Other state and county agencies, including all four county police departments, submitted testimony opposing the measure, and former Gov. Linda Lingle spoke against it on March 19, citing a section in the bill establishing grant programs to help people in “disproportionately impacted areas” enter the cannabis industry.

“This is the first time I’ve testified at the Legislature in 14 years since I left office, and it’s because I feel so strongly against this bill,” Lingle said.

“This bill gives preference to poor people and poor communities. It gives grants to poor people to open marijuana stores, it gives grants to nonprofits in areas of poverty to open marijuana stores to then turn around and help the people that marijuana has hurt.

“Can you imagine if the public knew that you were giving grant money to open a liquor store in a poor neighborhood?”

However, the majority of testimony regarding legalization has been overwhelmingly positive.

Jaclyn Moore, founder of Hilo medical marijuana dispensary Big Island Grown, estimated the state would receive more than $39 million in tax revenue in the first year after legalization, and more than $100 million in four years.

Puna resident Justen Paiva wrote that medical cannabis helped save the life of a friend battling cancer and warned that continued inaction on the issue only will increase confusion as other states legalize marijuana.

“The mentality of those who subscribe to the outdated ideology of ‘Reefer Madness’ can be detrimental to public safety, fostering fear and misinformation rather than evidence-based policies,” Paiva wrote.

Meanwhile, the state Department of the Attorney General wrote that, while it does not support marijuana legalization, it does not oppose SB 3335.

“The department does not warrant that legalization will be a ‘success’ or will not be beset with major issues,” the AG department said in its written testimony.

“But as it has become apparent that passage of a cannabis-legalization bill has become much more likely in recent years, we believe that it would be irresponsible — both from a legal standpoint and as a matter of common sense — for the department to refrain from weighing in on how a transition to legalization could best protect the public welfare.”

SB 3335 still must pass the House Finance Committee, but no hearing for the bill has yet been scheduled.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky can be reached at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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