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Why legal pot didn't happen in Hawaii

Hawaii loves marijuana. We’re famous for it: Maui Wowie, Kona Gold, Kauai Electric. This year, legislators introduced bills to legalize the drug—they got shot down. Legalization has been gaining traction, both locally and nationally, so why has it been an uphill battle for marijuana advocates? Here's why pakalolo won't become legal in Hawaii this year, and probably won't next year, either.


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The third-floor conference room of the state Capitol was packed. Latecomers stood along the back wall. Law enforcement sat on the left side, the officers in full uniform, peaked caps in their laps, the attorneys in suits and ties. Marijuana supporters, more casually dressed, mostly occupied the right side, including nonprofit staff, medical marijuana patients and educators. A few students were there; one held up a small sign reading, “Be Wise. Legalize.” They were all there to testify—for or against—House bill 699, the bill proposing to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older in Hawaii.


Colorado and Washington made news across the country this past November when the two states ended their prohibitions on marijuana in landmark referendums. Hawaii seemed like a natural state to take the same step. After all, the Islands are predominantly Democratic and have a famous reputation for both growing quality pakalolo, and smoking it: According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, Hawaii has the 10th highest marijuana usage rate in the nation among those 18 and older.


Sure enough, the state Legislature introduced five bills to either legalize or decriminalize weed—reducing possession from a petty misdemeanor to a civil fine, essentially removing jail time for offenders. Hawaii was one of several states to do so, including Oregon, Nevada, Vermont and Rhode Island. For local advocates, pakalolo enthusiasts, even the local Libertarian Party, it was a good start to the 2013 session. But the high didn’t last long. Hawaii, it turns out, isn’t much like Colorado or Washington. Our political processes are different, and so is our brand of liberalism.


"A Lack of Political Will”


When it comes to illegal substances, marijuana is one of the most easily accessible. It’s the most commonly used drug—or medicine, for some—in the U.S. In 2011, there were more than 18 million users (according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). The president himself has openly admitted to enjoying pakalolo while attending Punahou School. Guy Archer, a retired attorney, and the president of the local chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action, says he, too, has smoked weed before and, while he says he’s “not willing to run the risk today,” thinks marijuana is safer than alcohol. “People should have an alternative to alcohol,” he says.


He’s not alone. This past November, the Honolulu-based Drug Policy Action Group commissioned QMark Research to gauge the attitude of Hawaii citizens towards marijuana. Of the 600 registered voters polled, 57 percent supported legalization—up 20 points from a 2005 survey—69 percent said jail time for possession was too harsh, thus favoring decriminalization, and 78 percent supported establishing medical marijuana dispensaries.


“It’s in the air. People are feeling it’s time for a change,” says Pam Lichty, who heads the Drug Policy Action Group, sister organization to the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. Lichty adds she believes Colorado’s and Washington’s winning initiatives “made everyone wake up and notice.”


But Hawaii won’t join in Colorado and Washington’s marijuana conquest anytime soon. It all comes down to politics. Our state constitution has no provision for statewide referendums by which voters can directly overturn an existing law, such as the ban on marijuana, or ballot initiatives to create a new law, such as establishing medical marijuana dispensaries. That’s how Colorado and Washington did it. In Hawaii, such issues are funneled through the Legislature, in what can be a longer, more cautious process. And, although legislators put their names on legalization and decriminalization bills this session, “there’s a lack of political will” to see them pass, says Lichty.


This played out in the House in February. It took the Judiciary Committee about five hours to hear everyone’s testimony for the legalization bill. In total, there were 402 pages of testimony, much of it in support. Anyone conversant with the issue heard the usual arguments for and against: The police talked about how legalization would increase crime and put more joints in kids’ hands, while also reminding legislators it’s illegal federally. Supporters touted its medicinal benefits, refuted claims of addiction and argued that prohibition has failed. You could tell some House representatives were dubious of the legislation based on the questions they asked testifiers, but deferred to the leadership of chair Karl Rhoads.


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