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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“I thought there was a very good chance it would pass this year,” Rhoads said over the phone just days after the legalization bill stalled. He says that, in the beginning of the session, he polled the House Democratic Caucus on whether it would support marijuana legalization. He had 19 yeses, 16 noes and four undecided. That’s why Rhoads’ committee scheduled a hearing for the bill. But, it “became clear it wasn’t going to make it,” he says after learning it wouldn’t pass muster once it left Judiciary.
“If you want something killed, it’s relatively easy to do,” says John Radcliffe, who has been a government lobbyist for more than 20 years. “Getting something passed into legislation is very difficult,” he says, especially controversial legislation such as legalizing marijuana, or gambling, the latter of which he’s tried to get passed for years. “Getting ideas killed happens every day.”
So why is this? Hawaii is a true blue state—unlike Colorado, which has Republican roots—and has been historically. Logically, it should be easier to pass bills with both a Democratic majority in the Legislature and a Democrat in the governor’s seat. “[But Hawaii] legislators are timid,” explains Radcliffe from his office, which overlooks Dog the Bounty Hunter’s Da Kine Bail Bonds. It’s the reason gambling legislation isn’t being heard this session, despite the “intense interest,” says Radcliffe, as well as bills for same-sex marriage or physician-assisted suicide, also known as “death with dignity.”
“Absent of anything you might have heard of Hawaii otherwise politically, our politicians are extremely affected by people who criticize them or who want something from them. The loud voice is heard in Hawaii.”
When it comes to marijuana, that loud voice is law enforcement. There’s vested interest in keeping things the way they are, says Lichty. For example, she says, the police department wants to keep the funds it gets for the war on drugs, and the drug-testing industry doesn’t want to lose business.
A 2012 study done by David Nixon, a UH associate professor of public policy, found that law enforcement and prosecution costs for marijuana possession have increased to more than $12 million annually.
“Marijuana arrests are what the police would call an easy collar, especially if people are smoking in public or acting stoned,” she says. “It’s easier than going after a heroin addict, a heroin dealer or someone who might be armed. [Those who use marijuana] are relatively harmless.”
However, says Maj. Jerry Inouye, who’s in charge of the Honolulu Police Department’s Narcotics/Vice division, not many people spend time in jail for possessing small amounts of marijuana. “In 2012, about 30,000 people were arrested by the Honolulu Police Department,” he writes via email. He adds, of that total, about 600 arrests were for petty misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Nixon’s research drew a different conclusion. It’s true, he says, that not many people are in jail because of marijuana possession, but he found that the arrest rate for marijuana possession in the state had increased between 2005 and 2010, from 1,003 arrests per year to 1,445. Even more alarming are the statistics for specific ethnicities. “There are at least three racial minorities in the state that are getting arrested at a lot higher rates than the rest of the population—Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Samoans,” he says. “I think it remains an unanswered question just yet whether they’re getting arrested more because they’re being targeted more, or whether they’re just smoking more. If they’re using more, that opens up another set of questions, but if they’re not using more and they’re just getting arrested more, that’s disturbing.”