It’s unclear how Hawaii’s expanding medical marijuana system will be affected by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement  Thursday that he was rescinding the Obama administration’s hands-off federal approach to states that have legalized pot.

But the islands’ congressional delegation wasn’t happy, with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard saying the decision “tramples on states’ rights.”

A new Justice Department memo essentially gives federal prosecutors in all states the freedom to decide how to set enforcement priorities. Though marijuana already was illegal under federal law, the Justice Department during the Obama administration had issued guidance — which Sessions has now revoked — discouraging enforcement of the law in states where it was legal.

The announcement comes three days after recreational use of marijuana became legal under state law in California. Seven other states have approved recreational use of the drug.

The front entrance to Aloha Green, one of four medical marijuana dispensaries that recently opened in Hawaii. It issued an email statement to its employees Thursday addressing the federal announcement. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

‘Silver Lining’ For Cannabis Advocates?

The Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii on Thursday reiterated its call for legalization of cannabis. It harshly condemned Session’s decision, saying it was based on “junk science.”

But Christopher Garth, executive director of the Hawaii Dispensary Alliance, said the group’s position is the same as it has been since President Donald Trump was elected: it’s not worried about federal intervention in the state’s medical cannabis program.

He described the now-rescinded Obama-era guidance as “relatively arbitrary” and said it was primarily a guide for shaping policy decisions at the state level.

“While some might see this as a bad thing, the silver lining is that this is an incredible opportunity to stretch the conversation beyond medical cannabis at the federal level,” Garth said. “It’s an opportunity to really secure the safeguards that the entire industry desperately needs.”

The main takeaway for dispensaries, Garth said, is that they should be sure they’re compliant with state law. Hawaii’s licensed dispensaries are “doing the best they can,” he said.

Christopher Garth, Executive Director of Hawaii Dispensary Alliance. Act 230 Medical Cannabis Legislative Oversight Working Group held at the Capitol.
Christopher Garth, executive director of Hawaii Dispensary Alliance, thinks the announcement could prompt a push to remove marijuana from the federal list of illegal drugs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As for the effect Sessions’s announcement may have on efforts to legalize recreational use of marijuana at the Legislature this year, Garth speculated it wouldn’t have passed anyway.

Garth, who sits on a legislative working group created to form public policy recommendations for the state’s cannabis dispensary program, said recreational legalization won’t be a priority this session because in election years such as this lawmakers are less likely to act on controversial issues.

Greg Tjapkes, executive director of Drug Free Hawaii, said Sessions’s decision would impact “big business” in medical marijuana the most and would create uncertainty in the market. He pointed to plummeting stocks of cannabis companies Thursday.

Under the Obama-era policies, Tjapkes said “it was turn your head the other way.” Thursday’s announcement is good for public health, he said.

Medical benefits of cannabis aside, he said “legalization isn’t going to help kids be successful and get jobs.” He added that his organization’s  mission is “keeping kids healthy, safe and drug-free.”

At a Capitol briefing Thursday afternoon, state Department of Health Director Virginia Pressler said she had not heard anything from the federal government prior to Sessions’s announcement. She said she wasn’t surprised by it, and added that uncertainty over how federal marijuana laws might be enforced is what has driven her department to focus on the safety of its dispensary program.

“Maybe our saving grace is we have a highly regulated program,” said Sen. Roz Baker, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health.

Turning ‘Everyday Americans Into Criminals’

Congresswoman Gabbard called upon her colleagues to pass a House resolution to remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances. She called Sessions’s decision an “overreach by federal government” and said his “reversal of the current non-interference policy … tramples on states’ rights.”

America’s “outdated” marijuana policies, Gabbard said, “turn everyday Americans into criminals, tear families apart, and waste billions of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for nonviolent marijuana charges.”

Sen. Brian Schatz aired his frustrations on Twitter with several messages:

Schatz used the moment to urge voters to support his Democratic colleagues this year:

He also replied to a July 2016 Twitter video in which Trump told a reporter from Colorado, where marijuana is legal for recreational use, that he personally supports states’ rights to set policy on the drug. Trump, however, did make it clear in the video that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of his future attorney general.

Like Schatz, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa noted in a statement that “America is struggling with an opioid epidemic that is killing 91 Americans a day.”

“What a complete waste of time,” she said of Session’s decision, noting that more than half of all Americans now live in areas where medical or recreational cannabis has been legalized.

Hanabusa’s statement also emphasized state rights and called for legalization of the drug in Hawaii.

Sen. Mazie Hirono also weighed in, albeit briefly:

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over western states including Hawaii, ruled last summer that the Department of Justice cannot spend money “for the prosecution of individuals who engaged in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws.”

So far four medical cannabis dispensaries have opened in Hawaii. One of them, Aloha Green Apothecary, sent an email to its employees Thursday morning stating that “today’s policy change does not change the legal status of cannabis … there is now greater uncertainty as to how federal agencies will treat state adult use (recreational) cannabis programs.”

But, it warned: “There may also be a slowing effect for patient demand and state plans for expanding adult use cannabis programs.”

Nathan Eagle contributed to this report.

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