A new Civil Beat poll shows a clear generational divide when it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana use.
Sixty-one percent of registered voters 50 and older don’t want the state to permit recreational use of marijuana, while just 33 percent favor the idea.
But exactly 50 percent of voters younger than 50 support it, while 38 percent oppose it.
“Age is everything on this,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted the poll. “Ethnicity a little bit too. Caucasians favor it more than Japanese. But, with age, it’s going to reach a tipping point sooner or later.”
Overall, 55 percent of respondents oppose legalizing pot while 36 percent support it. Only 6 percent said it doesn’t matter and just 3 percent said they are unsure.
Young people in Hawaii generally “do not make their voice heard, and so Hawaii’s politics and policy are dominated by the older voters that vote,” said Fitch.
The poll, conducted Nov. 27-29, surveyed 843 registered voters statewide, 70 percent on landlines and 30 percent with cellphones. Its margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percent.
This week Civil Beat is reporting on how voters feel about issues that have been considered by the Legislature in recent years and could come up again as soon as the next session that starts in Janaury. Our coverage concludes Friday when we measure interest in having a lottery.
Among the poll respondents who oppose legalizing recreational use of majijuana is Janice Flachsbart, 63, of Kaneohe.
“I don’t really have strong feelings about it, but when the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I generally don’t think that that form of drug needs to be available to the people without any restraints or ways of curbing its use,” she said.
Flachsbart does recognize there are opposing viewpoints.
“It’s not such a terrible thing,” she said. “Alcohol is legal, prescription drugs are legal, and all sorts of things you can get your hands on do much more damage and are legal. I guess it would not be such a horrible thing, but ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I lean more to no.”
Shea Baker, 28, of Honolulu, leans the other way.
“Me, personally, I don’t do drugs, I can’t do drugs,” said Baker, who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps. “But I think there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the more liberal approach — that it has proven medical qualities that make it a good alternative for a lot of people who are responsible adults.”
Baker added, “I don’t think I have ever seen someone smoke a joint and get violent and punch someone in the face. But I can tell you countless stories of people getting drunk and punching someone in the face.”
Baker said smoked marijuana “back in high school and college,” while Flachsbart said she tried marijuana “many years ago.”
If pot was legal for personal use, and taxed and regulated, Baker believes it could change people’s opinions.
“I think that, by and large, my generation tends to look at a lot of things that may have been taboo for their parents,” he said. “I think we like to have an open and honest discussion of the pros and cons.”
Flachsbart, however, does not believe that legalizing pot to make it a source of tax revenue is the way to go.
“You always have to be careful how you are making money,” she said. “For example, gambling. I would never support that here, even though it might bring money in. I do not want our state to rely on money from marijuana and gambling.”
Bills seeking to decriminalize or legalize the possession of marijuana are often introduced at the Hawaii Legislature. They always die, many times without a hearing.
Four measures were introduced in the House during the 2017 session and went nowhere. It was the same story for eight in the Senate.
The proposals included legislation to:
All five of those proposals carry over to the 2018 session that begins in January.
The Legislature did pass a bill last session that reclassified drug paraphernalia possession and delivery offenses from felonies to violations subject to a fine of no more than $500.
Nationally, a green tide appears to be rising.
Governing magazine reports that 29 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws “broadly legalizing marijuana in some form.” It notes:
Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted the most expansive laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Most recently, California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada all passed measures in November (2016) legalizing recreational marijuana.
State Sen. Will Espero, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018, believes marijuana will be legal in four to five years. He, too, considers it is a generational issue.
“I think it’s an argument worth having, especially when we see medical marijuana dispensaries becoming mainstream in health care, to a degree,” he said. “Decriminalizing for adult use and highly regulating it and taxing it, from that perspective, I think we could get more support.”
Creating a steady revenue stream for the state could make the difference, Espero said.
“I think the discussion, when we have it, will be driven by the need for tax revenue,” he said. “Do you want to raise the general excise tax, or raise property taxes? Where are you going to find another source of revenue?”
Espero figures legalizing pot could result in tens of millions of dollars annually for Hawaii, especially when the tourism market is factored in.
But many obstacles remain.
In 2013, then-House Speaker Joe Souki introduced the Personal Use of Marijuana Act, which would have allowed adults 21 years of age and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana “and to cultivate a limited number of marijuana plants in a secure and locked location,” according to Hawaii News Now.
Opponents included the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii and the Honolulu Police Department, which cautioned against the possible social cost of people using pot as a gateway to harder drugs.
The bill was never heard.