The House took a baby step toward loosening up Hawaii’s pakalolo laws Thursday, passing a measure to decriminalize possession of 3 grams or less and expunge the criminal records of people already convicted of having that amount.

House Bill 1383 would replace criminal penalties with a $200 fine. In 2017, 627 adults and 384 juveniles in Hawaii were charged with possession of marijuana, according to a recent report by the attorney general’s office.

Under the proposed measure, those applying for expungement would also need to pay the $200 fine. The amount of marijuana that the bill would decriminalize currently carries penalties equal to a petty misdemeanor.

The measure now moves to the state Senate.

“This is a tiny half-step to decriminalization,” Rep. Bert Kobayashi said on the House floor.

Rep Chris Lee during Pot Bill discussions during floor session.
Rep. Chris Lee, right, and Speaker Scott Saiki on the House floor Thursday. The House voted 35-16 to pass Lee’s bill decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The latest version of HB 1383 that cleared the House is significantly more conservative than the original measure authored by Rep. Chris Lee. The bill sat for nearly a month in the House Judiciary Committee that he chairs before moving to the floor.

The committee passed a version that would have decriminalized possession of up to a pound, with fines still set at $200. Even selling up to an ounce or growing plants would have been decriminalized, although with fines as high as $500.

Lee presented the current measure on the House floor Tuesday after changes were made during a closed-door meeting of House Democrats.

The measure passed 35-16 Thursday, with 12 Democrats and four of five Republicans voting against it.

Several state agencies, including the attorney general’s office and the state Department of Transportation, opposed the bill. So did all four county police departments in written testimony.

As scaled back as it was, HB 1383 still did not sit well with House conservatives. Minority Leader Gene Ward and Republican Rep. Val Okimoto worried that its passage could eventually lead to full legalization for recreational use — something that was already proposed and rejected this session.

Rep Gene Ward speaks in oppostion to the pot bill during floor session.
Rep. Gene Ward speaks Thursday in opposition to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lee said on the floor that data from other states showed that decriminalizing marijuana-related offenses did not lead to major increases in consumption. He said the bill represented one step toward  criminal justice reform in Hawaii.

“Our policies are perverse,” Lee said. “They are inverse and backward. We ought to be helping people, not destroying them in ways that limit potential.”

If HB 1383 becomes law, it would decriminalize possession of the smallest amount of marijuana of any state that has decriminalized it, Lee said.

Meanwhile, an omnibus marijuana bill introduced by Rep. John Mizuno moved into the Senate last week and still awaits a hearing. House Bill 637 would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell edibles, and to sell products to other dispensaries within the state if there was a shortage.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen, the lone House Republican who voted for the decriminalization bill, said she hopes some form of recreational legalization will pass in the future.

“I think we ought to free the plant,” she said. “We ought to listen to what the vast majority of the public is saying: ‘Leave it up to us.'”

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