Hawaiian Senate Overwhelmingly Approves Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization Bill

Hawaiian Senate Overwhelmingly Approves Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization Bill

Hawaiian lawmakers are pushing forward with their latest cannabis reform effort as the state Senate passed legislation that would legalize and regulate recreational cannabis on Tuesday.

In a 19-6 vote, the Hawaiian Senate approved Senate Bill 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. 

The proposal would also enforce a 14% excise tax on recreational cannabis products and a 4% tax rate on the medical cannabis market. Residents would be allowed to grow a maximum of six plants and possess up to 10 ounces of home-grown flower. Additionally, the bill would create a social equity program and establish the Hawaii Hemp and Cannabis Authority, overseen by the Hemp Cannabis Control Board, to regulate cannabis and hemp businesses.

Though the fight is far from over. 

The legislation now heads to Hawaii’s more conservative House for consideration, which has historically been resistant to adult-use cannabis policies. The last time the Hawaiian Senate passed an adult-use cannabis legalization bill in 2023, it ultimately stalled in the House, but advocates are hopeful this effort will make more progress.

This year’s bill, totaling more than 300 pages, was introduced in both chambers in January and is primarily based upon Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez’s legalization plan released in November 2023.

And while many lawmakers have praised the new bill and the plan it’s based upon, advocates have expressed concerns around the bill’s creation of additional law enforcement protocols.

The legislation includes provisions that impose THC blood limits for drivers, despite the fact that THC metabolites can be detected in the body days or even weeks after consumption. It also creates 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.

Advocates also highlighted another provision subjecting those found with loose cannabis, an open package for a cannabis product or a cannabis pipe in a car to up to 30 days in jail.

With these provisions in mind, a number of groups are pushing to make amendments to SB 3335.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that lawmakers are being faced with an opportunity, not only to enact legalization and regulation but in a manner “rooted in justice and equity, not an excessively punitive approach.” 

Rather, O’Keefe said that lawmakers should see cannabis legalization as “essential criminal justice reform” and further emphasize education, reinvestment in communities, reparative justice and building a more equitable and inclusive industry.

The Hawai’i Alliance for Cannabis Reform (HACR) similarly recognized that the Senate’s approval of SB 3335 was a sign of progress while referencing their ongoing concerns and proposed amendments to the legislation. The group’s amendments include eliminating the THC limit for drivers and open container provisions in the bill, with others expanding upon the social equity specifics of the legislation.

“Although this is an imperfect bill that still contains far too many elements of criminalization, it’s welcome news to have a viable adult-use legalization bill that can be improved upon when it reaches the House,” said Nikos Leverenz, grants and advancement manager of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center. “Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and other members of the Hawaii Alliance for Cannabis Reform are hopeful that our proposed amendments will be considered by the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.”

Alongside the latest cannabis legalization bill, senators also approved a separate piece of legislation, SB 2487, which reduces penalties around possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis to a non-criminal offense. If passed, offenders would instead pay a $130 fine. 

A similar bill in the House, HB 1596, would reduce penalties of cannabis possession up to one ounce and/or cannabis-related paraphernalia to a $25 fine.

It seems that clearing the House is the main obstacle for recreational cannabis legalization in Hawaii, as Gov. Josh Green (D) indicated last month that he would likely sign such a bill if lawmakers sent him one. 

In an appearance on Hawaii News Now, Green referenced that Hawaii must still address the social issue of cannabis legalization, even signaling that access to adult-use cannabis could act as a harm reduction effort.

“I don’t think the sky would fall, honestly, if marijuana were legalized,” Green said. “I also have some thoughts that marijuana might blunt the effect, if you will, of people on these heavy drugs, these horrible drugs.”

While it’s still uncertain exactly where this road will go, Senate Democrats have made it clear that cannabis legalization is a priority. At the beginning of the year, the issue appeared on the Senate’s list of priorities for the 2024 legislative session under a section centering economic development and infrastructure.

“The Senate remains committed to diversifying and expanding Hawai‘i’s economy, as well as improving infrastructure throughout the State,” the section starts. It mentions “investing in emerging industries to diversify the economy” before explicitly referencing “legalizing adult-use recreational cannabis” at the very end of the section.

We’ll have to wait and see if the House feels the same this time around.

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