Hawaii Lawmakers Amend Automatic MJ Expungement Bill to Single-County Pilot Program

Hawaii Lawmakers Amend Automatic MJ Expungement Bill to Single-County Pilot Program

Hawaii lawmakers are pressing ahead with an updated cannabis legalization plan, and while the Aloha State could very well be one of the next to embrace adult-use reform, the original plan is already seeing some substantial shifts. Namely, it appears that the Senate is looking to significantly scale back some of the actions surrounding social equity.

The original measure, passed by the House last week, would have automatically expunged tens of thousands of arrest and conviction records for low-level cannabis convictions in the state. On Tuesday, a Hawaiian Senate panel has instead amended the proposal to a single-county pilot program, first reported by Marijuana Moment.

Similar to the recreational legalization plan, which state lawmakers are separately working to advance, this move is based on plans from Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez. 

“Instead of the bill’s statewide automatic expungement program for arrests and convictions,” said Sen. Karl Rhodes (D), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I propose that we adopt the attorney general’s pilot program for state-initiated expungement of marijuana possession arrests.”

The measure would also only apply to criminal cases “terminated with a final disposition other than a conviction,” 

Back in November 2023, Lopez released her own legalization plan, which the most recent legislation passed by the Senate primarily pulls from. While many lawmakers have praised the new bill and the plan it’s based upon, advocates have expressed concern around the bill’s creation of additional law enforcement protocols.

Among other provisions, the legislation proposes a THC blood limit for drivers (even though THC metabolites can be detected in the body days or even weeks after consumption), the creation of a cannabis enforcement unit within the Department of Law Enforcement and adds eight positions in a drug nuisance abatement unit in the AG’s office.

Rhodes suggested that the pilot program could be located in Hawaii County, the states’ second most populous county, comprising the Big Island and hosting about 14% of the state’s total population.

According to bill sponsor Rep. David Tarnas (D), the original legislation would have made approximately 30,000 people eligible for expungements. Though, if the amendments from the AG’s office remain in place, HB 1595’s ultimate impact would be far smaller. 

Lopez’s office issued a statement saying that, without these amendments, the department “reiterates its strong opposition to this bill.”

“Instead of the bill in its current form, the Department proposes a pilot project whereby certain individuals who have been arrested solely for marijuana possession…and whose arrest resulted in a non-conviction disposition, have the arrest expunged via a state-initiated process,” the department said in a statement.

It continues, arguing that limiting the expungement process to one county would keep the case load manageable using its existing resources and suggested an approximate 14-month duration for the program.

“Results of the pilot project could then be used to evaluate the project’s effectiveness, utility, and efficiency, and to allow the Data Center to make more informed recommendations for future efforts,” the department said.

Hawaii has already introduced cannabis decriminalization, in turn ushering in a record sealing process from the courts, though advocates attest that the process isn’t accessible and can be challenging to navigate. 

The original bill would have automated the process, ensuring that the attorney general’s office “issue, without petition and on the department’s own initiative, an expungement order annulling, canceling, and rescinding all criminal records, including records of arrest and any records of conviction” for crimes of possessing up to three grams of cannabis. The process would have included records for civil violations, petty misdemeanor convictions, juvenile convictions, arrests and convictions, along with any pending charges.

The prior version would have also required the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center to identify all eligible cases within 30 days of the bill’s enactment, providing that information in biennial reports to the attorney general’s office, county prosecuting attorneys, county police departments and each state court. 

After receiving those lists, the attorney general’s office would have 60 days to issue expungement orders for the records under the previous version. Within one year of receiving those orders, the judiciary would finish the job.

Some advocates emphasized that the passing of an expungement process in the state was monumental despite the narrower scope.

“This is a huge step forward that will encourage Gov. Green to amplify relief for those with cannabis records through his clemency powers, something the Hawai’i legislature has already urged him to do,” said Frank Stiefel, senior policy associate for the Last Prisoner Project.

Others like Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for Marijuana Policy Project, said that the changes “represent a severe blow to cannabis justice.”

“An economic life sentence is an outrageously disproportionate penalty for possessing a substance that most Hawaii residents—and the Hawai’i Senate—believe should be legal,” O’Keefe told Marijuana Moment. “Testimony at the House Judiciary Committee’s informational briefing made it clear Hawai’i can and should remove this stigma which derails so many lives.”

The changes to HB 1595 come fresh off the Senate’s passing of SB 3335, which would allow adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and up to five grams of cannabis concentrates, along with establishing a recreational cannabis sales framework. 

That bill now heads to the state’s more conservative House for consideration, which has historically been resistant to adult-use cannabis policies.

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