The full Senate is expected to pass a legalization measure in the coming weeks.

The Hawaii Capitol can be full of surprises.

At a joint hearing Thursday, Republican Sen. Brenton Awa first voted “no” then voted “yes” on a bill that would legalize marijuana in Hawaii.

Awa said he supports legalizing marijuana. In fact, he helped introduce Senate Bill 375. The measure would set up a regulatory scheme to allow licensed dispensaries to sell recreational pakalolo.

Sen. Brenton Awa, far right, flipped his vote on a bill to legalize recreational marijuana Thursday morning. (Screenshot/2023)

But when the measure went before the Senate Human Services and Commerce and Consumer Protection committees, Awa, one of the chamber’s two Republicans, voted both ways.

The Human Services Committee went first. Sens. Joy San Buenaventura and Henry Aquino voted “yes” (technically, Aquino voted “with reservations,” but that counts as an affirmative vote). Awa voted “no.” Sens. Sharon Moriwaki and Maile Shimabukuro, the other members of the committee, were absent. The bill passed that committee 2-to-1.

But things were different moments later when the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee voted. Sens. Jarrett Keohokalole and Carol Fukunaga voted “yes,” Sen. Angus McKelvey was absent, and Sen. Herbert “Tim” Richards voted “no.”

Awa paused for a few seconds. The vote would be tied if he cast a “no” vote which could put the measure in jeopardy of missing a key legislative deadline on Friday.

He voted “yes.” The bill passed 3-to-1.

“It was literally on the fly, I don’t want this to die,” Awa said in an interview.

Awa said that he supports legalizing recreational marijuana but not in the form proposed under SB 375. After listening to testimony on the measure, he thinks the bill’s current form leans too heavily in favor of commercial dispensaries over small-time growers.

“The dispensaries are the problem. You go into a dispensary, I don’t know who could afford it,” Awa said. “To me when you legalize marijuana — if I got to farm, and I’m a grower, I should be able to sell marijuana. Not, I got to go to a dispensary, get a permit and deal with all this stuff.”

He went into the hearing with the intention of voting down SB 375, but flipped when it became clear the bill wouldn’t pass without his support. He wanted to keep it alive in the hopes that provisions he does support could eventually be added in.

He said he supported other measures like Senate Bill 1043, which decriminalized and legalized marijuana but without the regulatory scheme that involved licensed dispensaries. The measure never got a hearing, and Awa doesn’t believe there’s enough support for such a law in the Senate.

SB 375 creates the Hawaii Cannabis Authority whose job it would be to regulate the sale of marijuana. It would have until Dec. 1, 2024 to establish its rules and must begin accepting applications for dispensary licenses on Jan. 31, 2025. Qualifications for dispensary licenses would be left up to the authority. The state Department of Health would be required to implement the bill.

Gov. Josh Green has said he supports the legalization of marijuana. Still, the state health department raised public health concerns in its written testimony, including safety of packaging and potential negative side effects on youth mental health.

Local dispensaries including Aloha Green Holdings, Noa Botanicals, Green Aloha and others all supported the measure. However, many said they preferred a simpler regulatory scheme proposed under Senate Bill 669.

Small-scale growers and organizations that represent them opposed the bill.

“We think it’s a mistake to tie decriminalization to commercialization,” Mark Barnett, executive chair of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, told senators.

SB 375 now faces another joint hearing, this time before the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees, which is yet to be scheduled.

The Senate’s other legalization measure, SB 669, already cleared its first committee and is also awaiting a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. A measure legalizing marijuana is expected to pass the Senate in some form. The chamber voted to legalize marijuana in 2021, but the bill died in the House.

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