Major Concerns Over Hawaii Cannabis Legalization Bill

    A marijuana legalization measure unveiled in draft form by Hawaii’s attorney general in 2023 has now been formally introduced in the legislature, with companion bills filed in both House and Senate. Advocates, however, say the latest version needs major changes, to shift the plan’s focus away from law enforcement and allow for the clearing of past cannabis convictions to provide relief to those most harmed by prohibition.

    Led by Representative David Tarnas (D) in the House and Senator Jarrett Keohokalole (D) in the Senate, the bill is largely the product of Attorney General Anne Lopez (D) and her staff. During a confirmation hearing in April 2023, she committed to leading an administrative task force “between now and next legislative legislative session to develop a complete regulatory and law enforcement legislative package that you can attach to any bill if you’re planning to legalize marijuana”—a commitment that led to the new bills: HB 2600 and SB 3335.

    Momentum to legalize cannabis has been building for years in Hawaii, and earlier in January, the Senate’s majority Democratic leadership listed the reform as one of its top legislative priorities for the current session. The chamber passed marijuana legalization bills in 2021 and 2023 that later stalled in the House.

    “Placing a velvet glove of legalization on law enforcement’s iron hand is not what is called for.”

    The new 328-page bills landed with notable support, with nine other co-sponsors besides Keohokalole in the Senate and 16 others aside from Tarnas in the House. But in the advocacy community, the measures have met with mixed reviews.

    “Generally speaking, the bill provides a sound floorplan for adult-use legalization but erects a structure that is still far too punitive in its approach,” Nikos Leverenz, of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, told Marijuana Moment. “Placing a velvet glove of legalization on law enforcement’s iron hand is not what is called for.”

    As introduced, the proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and up to five grams of concentrates as of January 1, 2026. Home cultivation would be legal, with adults allowed to grow up to six plants and keep as much as 10 ounces of resulting marijuana.

    The measures would create the Hawaii Cannabis Authority to license and regulate adult-use cannabis businesses. That body would be overseen by a five-member appointed Cannabis Control Board, led by an executive director who would need to have experience in public health or cannabis regulation.

    Cultivators, processors, medical dispensaries, adult-use retailers, craft dispensaries and independent testing laboratories would be licensed under the plan, with regulators able to adopt rules around special events, social consumption and other special-use cases.

    Adult-use cannabis would be taxed at a relatively moderate 10 percent in addition to Hawaii’s 4 percent general state excise tax.

    Advocates, however, are criticizing the bill—pointing to new criminal laws that would affect minors as well as restrictions that could risk perpetuating the harms of the drug war, such as the bill’s explicit assertion that the smell of marijuana can be used to justify searches.

    “Legalization should mean fewer cannabis arrests, not more.”

    Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for Marijuana Policy Project, which recently released a summary of the new legislation, said the bills as introduced “might actually do more harm than good to the cause of cannabis justice.”

    “Legalization should mean fewer cannabis arrests, not more,” O’Keefe told Marijuana Moment, arguing that the policy change “should include the clearing of criminal records for cannabis and reinvestment in hard-hit communities. Instead, these bills ramp up cannabis-specific law enforcement and impose jail time for innocuous behavior that harms no one, including driving long after impairment wears off and having a previously opened jar of edibles in the passenger area of a car.”

    Anyone who possesses an open package of marijuana or loose flower in the passenger area of a vehicle, for example, could face up to 30 days in jail. Minors could also be hit with criminal charges, though the bill includes provisions for probation and deferred prosecution, and convictions would be eligible for expungement once sentences are complete.

    Broader expungement provisions for people with existing marijuana convictions on their records, however, don’t exist in the bill drafted by Lopez’s office.

    The current plan would also create a cannabis enforcement unit as well as a separate “drug nuisance abatement unit” within the attorney general’s office, with at least 25 new positions between the two groups. A new cannabis enforcement special fund and nuisance abatement fund would each receive 7.5 percent of marijuana tax revenue.

    “While it’s past time Hawai’i end cannabis prohibition,” O’Keefe said, the legislature “needs to significantly revise the AG-drafted bills.”

    Earlier in January, the attorney general sent a revised draft of the legislation to lawmakers, releasing a public preview that outlined the bill’s main themes. Lopez said at the time that the bill “represents our best judgment about how to promote a legal market, minimize risks of societal harm, mitigate damage that does come to pass, avoid liability, and provide workable tools and substantial resources for law enforcement and public-health officials to promote the public welfare.”

    While Lopez’s office is officially neutral on the bill, a press release emphasized that the department “does not support the legalization of adult-use cannabis.”

    Many, however, are expecting lawmakers to take an active role in adjusting the proposal over the course of the legislative session.

    “Given that the legislature could theoretically pass a bill as early as this year,” a statement from Lopez said, “it is my department’s duty to warn the legislature of the risks, while simultaneously providing a framework that includes robust public-safety and public-health safeguards.”

    In a clarifying statement, a spokesperson for the attorney general said: “The department does not support legalization of cannabis, but will remain neutral on the question of the bill’s passage, so long as the bill contains the key elements identified in the report and does not include provisions antithetical to these elements, as it may be amended through the legislative process.”

    Many, however, are expecting lawmakers to take an active role in adjusting the proposal over the course of the legislative session.

    Leverenz of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i said that as far as advocates have been able to gather, “it’s foreseeable for the Senate to again take the lead on moving a bill out of its chamber, hopefully with substantial amendments.” Amid a broader cultural and legal shift away from prohibition, he said, Hawaii should focus on issues like restricting youth access and accurately labeling consumer products, not stepping up enforcement.

    “It makes little sense to maintain a law enforcement infrastructure that has every incentive to maximize continued criminalization, which will fall disproportionately on Black, Native Hawaiian, and Pasifika communities,” he said.

    Nevertheless, Leverenz said the bills’ lead sponsors have been active in engaging with both advocates and other lawmakers, leaving room for the chance of changes ahead.

    Sen. Keohokalole “has been especially candid and receptive to having a regulatory landscape that promotes broad participation by smaller farmers and businesses,” he said, while “House Judiciary Chair David Tarnas has worked diligently to engage in continued dialogue with advocates and his legislative colleagues, bringing forward many changes to the AG’s first draft.”

    “The AG’s second draft doesn’t include many of them,” Leverenz added of the latest version, though he acknowledged that Tarnas has separately introduced legislation that would decriminalize up to an ounce of marijuana and exempt cannabis “paraphernalia” from the state’s broader anti-paraphernalia law.

    He noted that while support is growing for legalization in Hawaii, “there are a number of Democrats who are more conservative in their outlook due to electoral considerations and the continued opposition of law enforcement and county prosecutors.”

    Leverenz pointed to Honolulu prosecutor Steve Alm, who, he said, “has been especially assertive in forwarding unsound rhetoric in recent months around tourism, potency and the dangers to youth.”

    In November, the attorney general’s office defended the earlier draft of legislation after Alm said law enforcement were firmly against legalizing marijuana in general and Lopez’s plan specifically. David Day, a special assistant with the AG’s office, said at the time that Alm’s concerns were overblown and that the legalization measure deliberately took into account law enforcement perspectives.

    “The Department of Law Enforcement, which is the state’s leading law enforcement agency, worked collaboratively with the Department of the Attorney General on this bill,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is present a bill that tries to mitigate as many of those risks as possible.”

    After Lopez initially unveiled the bill in November, Tarnas said that the attorney general did “a really good job pulling together all of the different input and providing a comprehensive bill.” Keohokalole, for his part, called the measure “the best version to date.”

    “Having a governor who supports legalization has moved the needle quite a bit.”

    Governor Josh Green (D), meanwhile, has been generally in favor of legalization. He said in 2022 that he would sign a legalization bill and already had ideas about how to use tax revenue could be put to use. Advocates struggled under former Governor Dave Ige (D), who resisted legalization in part because he said he was reluctant to pass something that conflicts with federal law.

    “Having a governor who supports legalization,” Leverenz said, has “moved the needle quite a bit.”

    Hawaii lawmakers have introduced legalization bills in recent legislative sessions, with the Senate passing a reform bill in March, a proposal that’s also still technically in play. That proposal does provide for criminal expungements, but so far it’s been stalled in the House.

    In April 2023, the Hawaii legislature also approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.

    Another newly introduced bill in Hawaii’s legislature would create a limited therapeutic psilocybin program, with eligible patients able to possess and consume the psychedelic under a trained facilitator’s care. The measure is the result of a task force on breakthrough therapies that was formed lin 2023 to explore the issue.


    Photograph of Hawaii state capitol by Xpixupload via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Ben is a writer and editor covering cannabis since 2011, including as a senior news editor for Leafly. He is currently senior editor at Marijuana Moment. He lives in Seattle.

    • Show Comments