Staunchly liberal Hawaii in no rush to legalize marijuana

(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)
Published: Mar. 1, 2019 at 5:09 AM HST
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HONOLULU (AP) - On the political spectrum, Hawaii is among the bluest of states. Democrats control all the levers of power at the state and federal levels, and voters back Democratic presidential candidates over Republicans by some of the widest margins in the nation.

The state has committed to the Paris climate agreement that President Donald Trump rejected and was the first state to require people be 21 to buy cigarettes. The tourist haven even banned certain kinds of sunscreen because they can harm coral reefs.

But when it comes to legalizing marijuana for adult use, the islands are out of step with liberal stalwarts such as California and Vermont that already have recreational marijuana laws, and other left-leaning states such as New York and New Jersey that are racing toward joining them.

It’s not for lack of trying. Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English has introduced marijuana legalization bills for the past 15 years.

However, Hawaii has a track record of moving slowly on social issues. For example, other states moved far more quickly to sanction gay marriage and medically assisted suicide.

Half the Democrats in the Senate co-sponsored English’s measure, helping spur speculation this would be the year legalization becomes reality. But the effort is facing significant obstacles from leaders worried about contradicting federal law, which continues to classify marijuana as an illegal drug, and jeopardizing Hawaii’s existing medical marijuana program.

"We're going to vet things carefully," said Rep. Della Au Belatti, the House majority leader. "I do think that recreational cannabis is something that is coming but 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.'"

Belatti said lawmakers will have to closely study the experiences of states that have already legalized marijuana. She also wants to have abuse prevention, treatment and education programs set up before legalization. Hawaii also will have to make sure legalized marijuana doesn’t lead to more impaired driving, she said.

For now, Belatti said she’s just inclined toward decriminalizing marijuana, or reducing fines and criminal penalties for possession.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have recreational marijuana laws. All except Vermont did it by ballot initiative, an option not available in Hawaii.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Hawaii residents are becoming more accepting of legalization now because it has happened elsewhere and “the world hasn’t come to an end.” There’s also recognition that the status quo isn’t working, he said, noting that juniors at a high school near his district tell him they can get pot whenever they want.

“It’s like Prohibition,” he said. “We’ve been trying to squish it out, squeeze it out, by making it illegal. And it’s just failed miserably.”

Rhoads’ committee passed an amended version of English’s bill earlier this month, the first time a legalization measure has ever made it out of any committee. But it faces a Friday deadline to pass out of the Health and Ways and Means committees and indications are it won’t.

Health Committee Chairwoman Sen. Roz Baker doesn’t support it. The Maui Democrat said she doesn’t want to do anything that would threaten Hawaii’s nascent medical cannabis dispensary system. Dispensary sales began only two years ago.

Baker said she believes the federal government will leave medical marijuana alone but might take a more active approach to enforcing federal drug laws if Hawaii takes the next step. Democratic Gov. David Ige expressed similar concerns.

Rep. Joy San Buenaventura said it doesn’t make sense to push the measure through unless Ige gets behind it. San Buenaventura represents Puna, a mostly rural area on the Big Island long known for pot growing.

Brian Goldstein, the founder and CEO of the medical marijuana dispensary Noa Botanicals, said it’s inevitable Hawaii will allow adult use and he sees no point in delaying it. But he acknowledged it may take a while.

Hawaii’s Legislature approved medical marijuana in 2000 - four years after California became the first state with such a law - but it took island lawmakers another 15 years to set up a dispensary system.

Carl Bergquist, the executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said even if the idea fails again this year progress is being made.

"It's a huge step ... just to have that conversation started," he said.

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