Bill to legalize marijuana in Hawaii clears major hurdle at Legislature

But lawmakers say they're trying to avoid problems seen in other states.
Published: Mar. 2, 2023 at 8:25 PM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A plan to legalize recreational marijuana advanced out of two state Senate committees Thursday — and is now moving to the full senate.

Lawmakers are trying to avoid problems that arose in other states that went beyond medicinal use.

The Senate proposal, approved by the Consumer Protection and Ways and Means Committees, is designed to encourage small licensed growers all across the state.

But it’s likely to run into strong opposition in the state House.

Other states faced marijuana wars between big operators and surplus weed that crashed prices.

The Senate plan emphasizes small operators — no more than 5,000 square feet — about the size of a lot in a new housing subdivision.

There would be separate licenses for growers, product manufacturers and retailers, and limits on how many licenses can be held by an individual company.

The bill’s primary author, Senate Consumer Protection Committee Chair Jarrett Keohokalole said the goal is to avoid large companies monopolizing the business.

“We’d like the ability for this to become a decentralized agricultural industry,” Keohohalole said. “We are still required to ensure safety and ensure robust regulation.”

That would be the role of a new agency, the Hawaii Cannabis Regulatory Authority, which would set rules and regulations for licensing, testing and oversite.

Although the proposal only got two “no” votes in the committees, concerns were raised about the continuing federal laws against cannabis, fears of law enforcement about impaired drivers and workers, access by young people and criminal activity. Sen. Sharon Moriwaki asked about those issues.

“I still see the medical use as being very critical because they need it,” Morwaki said. But when you have personal use how are you framing it so it’s really restricted.”

Keohokalole said he sees regulation operating similar to alcohol rules. His proposal would allow people who were raising illegal to become legit. “Follow all the rules, prove they are going to operate on the up and up and ensure the public safety and they are allowed to operate,” he said.

SB 669 is expected to pass the Senate easily next week - and although supporters said there may be a majority in support in the house – House Speaker Scott Saiki said the state is not ready this year.

“It’s not as easy as just flipping a switch and saying marijuana is now legal,” Saiki said. “There are a lot of issues related to how you set up the system how do you regulate the system.”

Saiki said he has asked the House committee chairs to plan on working on a legalization system this summer, after the current session. He said he is particularly concerned about issues raised by law enforcement.

“They have legitimate concerns about the impact of legalization on the general public and their concerns have to be considered as part of this,” Saiki said.

The state Attorney General and Health Department have also raised multiple concerns, despite Governor Josh Green’s claim to support recreational use. Keohohalole said the administration has been “very difficult to deal with.”

“We need to have a dialogue,” he said. “The governor says that he supports this but his unelected administrators have said ‘no’ to every different kind of framework that we have put forward.”

Governor Green’s senior advisor Blake Oshiro responded:

“Governor Green supports legalized use of cannabis by adults, providing that any legislation that emerges protects public safety and consumers, and assures product safety with testing and tracking. The Governor also seeks to ensure the continued viability of our medical cannabis industry. Because these are complicated issues, he has encouraged his departments to state their concerns, and to make suggestions if there are ways to mitigate them. If a bill passes the legislature that accounts for his primary concerns, he has indicated he will likely sign it,” Oshiro said in a statement.