In less than 24 hours last week, Hawaii took historic steps toward a more rational and productive relationship with cannabis and two of its most useful products, medicinal marijuana and industrial hemp.

Late Thursday, House and Senate conferees recommended passage of Senate Bill 2659, which establishes an industrial hemp pilot program for the state. The bill is scheduled for final consideration in both chambers on Tuesday; if all goes well, it should be sent on to Gov. David Ige for his expected signature.

On Friday morning, state Department of Health Director Virginia Pressler announced the eight businesses selected for the first medical-marijuana dispensary and grow-operation licenses on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai. Each business has until this Friday to accept and pay $75,000 for its license and just over 10 weeks until it may open on July 15.

Marijuana dispensary announcement. Keith Ridley and Dr. Jeannie Pressler before they walk into press conference held at Kinau Hale. 29 april 2016
Department of Health Director Dr. Virginia Pressler, center, prepares to announce the marijuana dispensary licensees at Kinau Hale on April 29. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Both developments offer good news for Hawaii, for multiple reasons. Here’s why.

The creation of an industrial hemp program — championed by the indefatigable Rep. Cynthia Thielen — is an entirely positive development for a product that was pushed to the margins of American society decades ago for no good reason. Industrial hemp has no power to get anyone high, but its close relationship to its trippy sister kept it out of the U.S. marketplace, depriving consumers of numerous high value hemp products.

At the height of the same anti-weed hysteria that spawned the cult classic schlockumentary propaganda film “Reefer Madness” in 1935, Congress outlawed hemp through the Prohibitive Marihuana Tax Law in 1937. Though limited cultivation took place during World War II, the last commercial hemp fields were harvested in 1957.

That legal sidelining of industrial hemp ignored its long and rich history in the United States. Cultivated by some of the nation’s founding fathers, and responsible for fibers and seeds used in paper, fabric, cooking oil and many more products, industrial hemp nevertheless threatened the businesses of some of America’s leading industrialists, who pushed hard for the 1937 ban.

The creation of an industrial hemp program is an entirely positive development for a product pushed to the margins of American society decades ago for no good reason.

It has taken nearly eight decades and changes in federal law and policy, but hemp slowly is making a comeback. Last year, Oregon, Colorado and Vermont began allowing farmers to grow hemp under state law. Kentucky passed legislation similar to Hawaii’s in 2014, allowing for what has become a vibrant pilot program in that state. It is one of five states with such programs (Indiana, Minnesota, North Dakota and Tennessee being the others).

In all, 18 states, including Hawaii, have taken advantage of federal law permitting hemp research programs. Hawaii’s current program is run by the University of Hawaii, purely for study purposes, with no commerce allowed.

Hawaii’s new legislation not only would permit a far more robust pilot program in a state thought to have attractive growing conditions for industrial hemp, but potentially provide a cash crop to ameliorate the disappearance of Big Sugar from Maui.

Hemp, which requires far less water than sugar, could be cultivated on Maui lands where the final sugar harvest is only weeks away. This idea, embraced by Thielen, Maui state Rep. Kaniela Ing and, at last count, about 4,500 petition signers, could help reduce conflict over Alexander & Baldwin’s water diversions. Quick action by the Board of Agriculture could award a license there that might allow hundreds of sugar workers to transition to a new crop with relatively brief disruption to their livelihoods.

Perhaps even more promising for Hawaii, growth of industrial hemp could supply the basic material for a range of products that could reduce imports from the mainland and elsewhere. Creating the capability, for instance, to make hempcrete in Hawaii could spur creation of local businesses and reduce the costs of insulation and construction materials now shipped thousands of miles from off-island producers. Win-win.

Fixing A 16-Year-Old Problem, Helping Patients

On the medical marijuana front, Friday’s action by the state Department of Health capped months of work on writing regulations to govern the emerging industry and creating a panel to vet and select licensees from a pool of 59 applicants.

Launching a new industry is never easy; doing so with a product that remains illegal for recreational use in Hawaii and most of the country adds a significant legal and regulatory burden. Despite fits and starts, the staff of the Department of Health and the Attorney General’s Office are to be commended for completing their work in time for licensees to have a fighting chance of opening for business on the first day the law allows.

They have put Hawaii one long step closer to fixing a problem that the Legislature created 16 years ago, when it legalized medical marijuana but created no legal way for patients to access prescriptions. Hawaii was a national leader in taking that step toward legalization, but in the ensuing years, law enforcement and judicial opposition blocked all efforts to provide a route of access to medicine.

Patients have suffered in the interim. Nearly 14,000 individuals across the state have medical marijuana cards now and as dispensaries open, authorities expect that number to perhaps double. Those patients have faced a patently unfair legal environment that recognizes their illnesses, and recognizes marijuana as appropriate treatment, but denies them a route to its legal purchase. That has forced those who can’t grow their own into the black market.

That never made any more sense than the prohibition of industrial hemp.

It has taken longer than it should have for Hawaii to adopt rational positions on both of these products. But its break from the fear-driven policies of the past and its embrace of a position supported by facts and sober judgment is good news for patients and dispensary owners, good news for prospective industrial hemp growers and workers, and good news for consumers.

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