Hawaii would join the 15 other states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana under a bill advanced by a state Senate committee on Tuesday, but the measure still has a very long way to go before it can win final passage.

In what appears to be a nod to the long odds faced by the legalization proposal, the same Senate committee also gave preliminary approval to a measure to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

Hawaii has already decriminalized smaller amounts of cannabis weighing three grams or less, which is now punishable by a fine of no more than $130.

The legalization measure is Senate Bill 767, which would legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana or less by anyone who is 21 years old or older. It was approved by the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

A San Jose cultivator picks damaged leaves from marijuana plants. A bill to legalize personal use of marijuana advanced out of the state Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The measure would also allow the sale of up to an ounce of marijuana, and instructs the state Department of Health to draft rules by July 1 to implement the new law, including regulations for establishing marijuana retail outlets.

The bill is supported by the Hawaii Public Defender, which suggested that legalizing marijuana would allow that office and other agencies in the criminal justice system “to use its resources to deal with matters considered more serious by the community in general.”

The 2021 Legislature

The measure is opposed by the Honolulu and Maui Police Departments, the state Department of Transportation, the Honolulu Department of the Prosecuting Attorney, the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii, and Hawaii Family Forum.

Major Phillip Johnson of the Narcotics-Vice Division of the Honolulu Police Department said in written testimony that legalization would lead to “an increased availability of marijuana, making it more accessible, especially to juveniles.”

He also cited “the likelihood of an increased number of impaired drivers.”

Republican Sen. Kurt Fevella was the only member of the committee to vote against the legalization measure. The bill now goes to the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees for further consideration.

Some key House and Senate lawmakers support legalization, including Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke and Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads.

However, Gov. David Ige has opposed legalization in the past, and in 2019 he allowed the bill decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana to become law without his signature.

The Senate Public Safety committee on Tuesday also advanced Senate Bill 758, which would increase the amount of marijuana that would qualify for reduced penalties under the 2019 decriminalization law from three grams to one ounce.

That measure now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further discussion and action.

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