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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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A Legislative Concession


Hawaii may not have legalized marijuana this session, but there’s a glimmer of hope for its supporters: The Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee passed a decriminalization bill. As of press time, the House Judiciary Committee had also passed the bill.  It next has to be heard by the Finance Committee. Advocates hope it doesn’t die—it’s happened before.


That’s why the Senate didn’t hear any legalization bills this session, says Clayton Hee, who chairs the judiciary  committee. After what happened to the House legalization bill, there was no point.


But even the decriminalization bill came with a substantial change. Right now, when law enforcement catches someone with an ounce or less of marijuana on them, they face up to 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. They also have a petty misdemeanor on their record. The Senate’s decriminalization bill, if it passes in the House, would no longer make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a petty misdemeanor, and offenders wouldn’t face jail. Instead, they’d fork over $1,000, whether they had a single joint on them, or an entire ounce. The bill originally called for a fine of no more than $100, the amount  usually given by civil courts.


“It’s still a crime; it’s still illegal,” says Hee. “The $1,000 fine demonstrates that this is still a serious offense. And it’s a mandatory [fine], it’s not discretionary.” It’d be similar to the fixed $92 civil fine for not wearing a seatbelt, or the $130 fine for jaywalking—just 10 times as expensive. During the bill’s hearing, Hee said the $1,000 fine is intended to persuade House members to consider it.


The Medical Marijuana Program Impact


Depending on your political point of view, the Hawaii Democratic Party’s 2012 platform might appear forward thinking. After all, it includes sections on LGBTI rights, affordable housing, immigration reform, universal healthcare and support for the state’s existing medical marijuana program.


“The Democratic platform looks really progressive,” says Kat Brady, the coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, who, like Lichty, spends much of her time at the Capitol during session. “But then you go down to the Legislature and listen to them speak and you think, Why do they call themselves Democrats?”


In this instance, she’s referring to the 13-year-old medical marijuana program, which has remained unchanged since then Gov. Ben Cayetano signed it into law in 2000. There have been repeated attempts to amend it; so far, none have made it.


Lichty thinks a main cause is the “conservative voices that ruled the House for years.” Marijuana bills have repeatedly passed out of the Senate, only to get squashed in the House. Advocates are hoping that, with new leadership in place, things might finally change. This might be the year: As of press time, there were two bills that made it through the House and were working their way through the Senate. If passed, one would transfer the program to the state Department of Health (where most states’ medical marijuana programs are housed) from the state Department of Public Safety—the people who run law enforcement, prisons and jails.


Lichty says, under its current organization, legislators are getting a skewed view of the program, because it’s overseen by a department that, by nature, does not support medical marijuana. “Legislators believe everything [the department] tells them, instead of the patients, whom the program is for.”


Law enforcement and organizations such as the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii continue to dispute marijuana as medicine. “There’s no proven medicinal benefits at this time,” says executive director Alan Shinn, who adds that more research should be done. “Medical marijuana is a gateway to legalization. States that have medical marijuana laws are more prone to these legalization initiatives because it gives permission for people to think about these things.”


It’s the biggest reason we don’t have dispensaries here. Every time the issue is brought up, opponents bring up California and its failure to smoothly regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. “A lot of bad publicity came out of California,” says Lichty. “But we have a chance to do it better and we have 18 other models to look at,” she says. “No one ever talks about Washington, D.C., or Colorado.”


How does this relate to legalization or decriminalization? Medical marijuana made more people feel comfortable with the idea of cannabis, and brought it out into the open. “They saw that the sky didn’t fall in, that it actually had some beneficial uses,” says Lichty. “I think that made it more open to the idea of recreational use.” Today, 18 states and Washington, D.C. have medical marijuana programs, and 14 states have removed criminal penalties for the drug.


“It can demonstrate the benefits of regulation and show that it works,” adds Mason Tvert, the communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national reform organization.


It’s a strategy that worked in Colorado. Not only did the state successfully regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, but local advocates lobbied to regulate recreational marijuana like alcohol in its legalization campaign.


“We can regulate anything in this country, and you can see that in anything from pedi-cabs and fortune tellers all the way to nuclear facilities,” says Colorado resident Christian Sederberg, who was one of the co-authors of Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana and is now on the governor’s task force to implement the new law in the state.


The existence of two state-level recreational regulation programs may prove as influential as medical marijuana programs have in the past.


In the meantime, the Islands will likely be stuck taking baby steps, and it may be a year or two before legislators decide to consider the issue seriously. “It should be based on science—not morality and politics,” says Lichty.



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