The results of the recent Civil Beat poll that, among other issues, asked about cannabis legalization were surprising for at least two reasons.

First, the knife’s edge balance between support and opposition does not gel with the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii’s own well-regarded polling over the course of the last five years.

Secondly, it is completely at odds with trends in other states as well as nationally.

In the year after the first medical cannabis dispensaries opened here at home, and just as California completes the legalization “green wall” along the West Coast (including Alaska), we wanted to offer some perspective on polling as well as where Hawaii should go from here.

This bud is for you, Hawaii, according to some polls.

Polling Practices

As the Civil Beat poll indicated, there is undoubtedly a generational divide when it comes to cannabis as well as any number of other issues. However, while it is true that the older demographic is generally more likely to head to the ballot box, there are ample examples both here and nationally when inspirational candidates and/or certain issues alter that turnout divide.

From our vantage point, a more interesting question than asking, as Civil Beat did, “Should Hawaii legalize recreational marijuana?” would be to use questions that provide crucial context regarding cannabis legalization. The reason being that as any cannabis legalization bill passes through the Legislature, this kind of context would be at the forefront of a dynamic public debate. This debate would revolve around tax revenue, tourism impact, criminal justice reform and public health benefits as well as perceived negative effects.

Our own polling questions, conducted by Anthology Marketing Group, from as recently as December 2016, attempt to provide some of this context, and the results are telling. The tipping point in Hawaii for cannabis legalization is already here, and has been for some time.

When asked whether personal adult cannabis use should remain a crime or whether it should be “legalized, taxed and regulated,” a whopping 73 percent of poll respondents opted for the latter. This percentage is up from our polls with similar questions in 2012 (57 percent) and 2014 (66 percent).

In fact, the support for legalization in all of these polls outstrips that of the less controversial decriminalization measure, arguably because the population sees that continued delays mean squandering tax revenue that only legalization would bring.

The tipping point in Hawaii for cannabis legalization is already here, and has been for some time.

Additionally, it is crucial to note that legalization support is at 81 percent on the more financially strapped neighbor islands while on Oahu is still at a commanding 70 percent. Breaking down our poll along ethnic communities, we found that 64 percent of the Japanese-American community support legalization while Caucasians and Native Hawaiians are even more favorably inclined.

Regarding the all-important age distribution, our poll had a mean age of 54, with 65 percent being 50 years and older, and the support for legalization was still overwhelming. It also used the “omnibus” method by both polling online via the internet as well as via landlines and cell phones while the Civil Beat “robo-calling” poll heavily relied on landlines. Civil Beat’s and other media outlets’ polls have had their critics in the past, and to its great credit Civil Beat has been very transparent in discussing this.

Finally, we and others have often heard that there is a need for more micro-level, district level polling. It is well worth pointing out that this is extraordinarily expensive, and that the Civil Beat poll no more does this than our own polls. As a small nonprofit, DPFHI needs to focus its resources on public education, and conducting this kind of polling would negatively impact affected communities, including medical cannabis patients.

Where We Go From Here

Among the most important issues that must be discussed during upcoming legalization debates is the continued stigmatization of cannabis and associated disparate impact on communities of color. Here, it needs to be stressed that Native Hawaiians are the principle targets of what President Nixon’s right-hand man John Erlichman deemed an overt attempt to “disrupt communities.”

In other words, rather than address actual threats to health or safety, by mimicking these types of laws we are choosing to criminalize whole communities. We can lament that the failed War on Drugs has been partially resuscitated since the November 2016 presidential election, but we must also acknowledge that this has been happening for a long, long time and that our state has played a negative role.

In Hawaii, Native Hawaiians represent 29 percent of adult cannabis possession arrests and 33 percent of juvenile arrests. This despite, as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has reported, that the usage of cannabis among Native Hawaiians is comparable to that of other groups.

In 2017, Hawaii saw the beginning of a new era with the opening of the first medical cannabis dispensaries.

While these arrests do not initially lead to prison time, they saddle people with the scarlet letter of a criminal record that affects their life opportunities in everything from school to work.

It also exposes them to the criminal justice system rather than attempts to address any underlying social causes. This is why a Hawaii legalization law needs to have, like California’s Proposition 64, improved resentencing and reclassification mechanisms. Further, it must not only refrain from excluding the unjustly criminalized from being part of a legal cannabis industry, but actively foster their involvement.

In 2017, Hawaii saw the beginning of a new era with the opening of the first medical cannabis dispensaries.

Here at last: The front entrance to Aloha Green, a medical marijuana dispensary on King Street in Honolulu.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

As we work to improve patient access and the conditions for current and new dispensaries, it is past time to begin laying the groundwork for adult use cannabis legalization so that Hawaii can become part of this billion-dollar industry. Medical cannabis will co-exist, and taxed at lower rates, with adult use as other states have shown. Support on the national level has reached its own tipping point, with overall support at 64 percent and for the first time a majority of Republican Party voters now being in favor.

Meanwhile, our Canadian neighbors — Hawaii’s second largest international visitor group — are on the verge of creating their own booming adult use cannabis  market in 2018. Like our steadfast and principled opposition to the Muslim Bam, Hawaii must continue to stand up to any bullies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Regarding adult use cannabis, our neighboring states are already doing this, and so should Hawaii.

So let us hear and pass a bill in 2018, creating a task force to help draft legislation drawing on lessons from the mainland U.S. and beyond, and finally pass legalization in 2019. The copious reasons for doing so are in line with a progressive state’s approach to public health and criminal justice.

Hawaii is already behind the curve and by 2019, in addition to the nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population that legalized via the types of statewide initiatives our state constitution prohibits, other states will have legalized via their own legislatures.

Hawaii can and should pass a cannabis legalization law that is rooted in our economic interest as well as social justice with aloha. I am confident the population already supports this, and it is eager to help make this a reality.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

About the Author