Twelve Hawaii state senators have signed on to a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

The Senate Judiciary Committee conducted an hour-long hearing on Senate Bill 686 on Thursday morning, then continued the hearing to Feb. 7.

“Over the next few days we’ll try to digest what we’ve heard from testimony here today,” Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads told a packed hearing room at the Capitol after the committee heard 12 speakers. It has also received 260 pages of written testimony.

Rhoads said in January that he would “not at all be surprised” if this proves to be the year that the Legislature votes to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by people 21 and older.

Sen Karl Rhoads questions HTA about their $82 million dollar budget in joint senate committee hearings.
Sen. Karl Rhoads said a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana is likely to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee that he chairs, and has a legitimate shot at gaining full approval by the Legislature this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If the bill is approved by his committee, it would go next to the Ways and Means Committee chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who has signed on as one of  12 “introducers” of the bill in the 25-member Senate.

An almost identical measure, House Bill 708, has been introduced in the House by nine representatives. They include Chris Lee, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

“Legalization is inevitable,” Lee told Civil Beat on Thursday. “The question is, how much and how quickly.”

He said the House would be conducting hearings soon, but declined to assess the chance of full legalization passing the Legislature this session.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Gov. David Ige issued a statement Thursday saying he opposed legalization because “I’m concerned about conflicting federal and state laws that allow marijuana dispensaries on each island, but prohibit the transport of marijuana between islands.”

The measures would allow people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Indoor growers could have up to six plants, with up to three of them producing flower at the same time. The state Department of Taxation would administer rules to regulate recreational pot. The actual language of the bill is scarce on how recreational use would be implemented, leaving most of the rule-making up to the department.

The tax department would need to come up with qualifications for licensing cannabis retailers, security requirements for stores, product labeling requirements, health and safety regulations for marijuana products and advertising restrictions.

Another measure, House Bill 1581, proposes a 12 percent sales tax on cannabis products.

But the tax department wrote in testimony to the Senate committee that it does not have the expertise to regulate marijuana establishments. It also asked that lawmakers clarify how marijuana retailers would be taxed.

The state Department of Transportation opposes the bill, as does the Attorney General’s office, the latter citing concerns that marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

The transportation department wrote that in 22 percent of fatal crashes in Hawaii from 2013 to 2017, traces of marijuana were found in drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

“We don’t want to see Hawaii’s roads become testing grounds for legal limits,” testified Eva Andrade, president of the Hawaii Family Forum, which opposes legalization.

But former state Sen. Will Espero testified that “the time is right to pass this bill. What’s of most concern is our need for revenues. Then, maybe we don’t need to raise our income taxes, our property taxes or our general excise tax.”

Espero said that opponents’ concerns could be addressed by investing in public education programs and strong law enforcement.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who originally introduced the bill, has likened the legalization of recreational marijuana to the repeal of the national prohibition on alcohol in 1933.

In addition to Rhoads and Dela Cruz, other senators who have signed on as “introducers” include Stanley Chang, Mike Gabbard, Jarrett Keohokalole, Donna Mercado Kim, Les Ihara, Gilbert Keith-Agaran, Clarence Nishihara, Russell Ruderman and Maile Shimabukuro.

Hawaii would join 10 other states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands if it legalizes recreational cannabis.

Colorado, one of the first two states to legalize recreational use in 2012, brought in more than $266.5 million in revenue last year from taxes, licenses and fees related to marijuana, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Recreational cannabis only took effect Jan. 1, 2018, in California, but the state raked in $135 million in just the first two quarters of last year, according to the California State Controller’s office.

Other Marijuana Measures

Two measures, Senate Bill 527 and House Bill 583, would allow the production and consumption of edibles for medical marijuana patients.

Other bills in both chambers would decriminalize marijuana rather than legalize it. For example, HB 1383 would remove any criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana and replace them with fines.

Two House bills would allow patients who use medical cannabis to transport it between islands. Rhoads said that those bills are unlikely to go anywhere because there would be too much conflict with federal law.

Rep. John Mizuno and Sen. Rosalyn Baker, chairs of their chambers’ respective health committees, proposed laws that would allow medical cannabis to treat opioid use. They are similar to a bill vetoed by Gov. David Ige last year.

No matter what happens with legislative measures, marijuana would still be listed in both the state and federal Uniform Controlled Substances Act as a schedule 1 drug along with the likes of heroin and methamphetamine.

Schedule 1 substances, according to both state and federal laws, have no medical benefit and are of “the highest degree of danger or probable danger.”

A 2017 report by the National Academy of Sciences found insufficient evidence to link cannabis use to occupational injuries or death by overdose. The report did, however, find a statistical link between cannabis use prior to driving and motor vehicle crashes.

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