Maui County Council members who overwhelmingly passed a resolution earlier this month supporting the legalization and taxation of marijuana see economic hope in a budding cannabis industry.

The council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the legalization, regulation and taxation of adult-use cannabis, although council member Yuki Lei Sugimura says she’s now changed her mind and opposes legalization.

But other council members said the pandemic-induced economic downturn and decline in tourism inspired support for the resolution, citing the tax revenue that it would bring.

While the resolution has no legal impact, a bill to legalize cannabis is on its way to a joint session of the state Senate Judiciary Committee and the Ways and Means Committee after it cleared the Public Safety Committee last week.

“The need is greater than ever to immediately incentivize and develop other revenue generators,” states the resolution introduced by council vice chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai.

Senate Bill 767, which would legalize cannabis, notes that in its first year of legal cannabis sales, “Colorado collected $67,594,323 in taxes and fees from medical and retail cannabis.”

“This isn’t the first time our main economic driver has been impacted like this,” said Rawlins-Fernandez, who also chairs the council’s Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee. “With the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers, we experienced this. In the 2008 recession, we experienced this. … And here we are again, and it seems we haven’t learned from our past. We talk about diversifying our economy, but we haven’t done enough.”

Maui County Council members see financial help in the legalization of marijuana.

Despite the unanimous vote, some council members have their reservations.

After thinking more about her vote on the resolution, council member Yuki Lei Sugimura, representing Upcountry Maui, recanted.

“It should have been a ‘no’ vote,” she said.

While the resolution specifies legalizing only adult use, Sugimura worries that more accessible cannabis could be diverted to underaged consumers. She compared it to alcohol, noting, “It’s illegal for anyone under 21 anyways, but it happens at parties.” She added, “I don’t think anyone should be smoking marijuana anyway.”

Council member Kelly King of South Kihei thinks the resolution is too little too late.

“We missed the market,” King said, acknowledging the head start early legalizers like Colorado and Oregon had. “The full economic potential has diminished because we’ve dragged our heels.” 

But Maui has one advantage. “The cannabis industry still has some cachet with the ‘Maui Wowee’ designation, right, and we need to make sure we don’t lose that,” she said.

King also anticipates saving tax money by incarcerating fewer adults. “We have a lot of adults already using it who will now not have to worry about going to jail,” she said. “We are still going to be policing the underaged, which we do now anyway.”

The resolution supports expunging marijuana convictions and granting clemency or resentencing to those convicted, a disproportionate majority of whom are people of color.

“We’ve got to address this kind of institutional racism and that’s one way we can do it,” said council member Gabe Johnson of Lanai. “I’m all for it.”

Council member Tamara Paltin of West Maui expressed less concern about cannabis than about the newfound motive to legalize it.

Paltin remembers being in elementary school on the Big Island during Operation Green Harvest, a U.S. government multi-agency effort between the Hawaii National Guard, state police, and local law enforcement to eradicate cannabis. “It turned the community pretty much to ice and meth, so I don’t see marijuana as one of our problems,” she said.

“Folks are looking at it as a possible economic solution, so that’s a reason it moved forward this time as opposed to other times, and frankly that’s disgusting that folks think it’s so dangerous but they’ll allow it if there’s money to be made,” she said.

Rawlins-Fernandez says she sent the resolution to the other county councils, and she’s hopeful that they will pass similar resolutions.

“Perhaps having the support of all the counties will give the state the bravado, the courage, the grounding, I guess, to move forward on finally making this happen,” she said.

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