In a shift from the traditional stance of the Hawaii AG’s office, Lopez says she won’t oppose legalizing recreational marijuana.

Attorney General Anne Lopez told lawmakers at her confirmation hearing Wednesday that her office will no longer oppose legalization of recreational marijuana use in Hawaii, and also aired her doubts about the state’s asset forfeiture law.

Lopez, 60, was appointed by Gov. Josh Green late last year. She most recently served as vice president and general counsel for the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., the state’s network of public hospitals.

She also served as special assistant to the state AG from 2013 to 2015, and was in private practice with the Honolulu law firm of Chun Kerr, Dodd Beaman & Wong. She is a graduate of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Attorney General Anne Lopez says she will steer clear of policy and political questions. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lopez told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she plans to generally steer clear of policy and political questions, and instead will focus on the legalities of policies that lawmakers and the governor want to pursue. And she said as much to Green.

“I have made it clear to him that I will not be participating in political decisions, but if it’s his policy to find a way to take the homeless off the street, then my job and the job of my deputies is to provide legal advice and those guardrails for how he can do that legally,” she said.

The Attorney General’s Office traditionally has opposed legalization of cannabis for recreational use. In 2021, the AG opposed a legalization measure, raising concerns that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and legalization might result in more motorists on the road under the influence of pot.

But Green has said he is willing to legalize recreational use, and Lopez said her office has changed its stance on that issue.

“I’ve changed our position from opposition to that ‘train has left the station,’ and so let’s find a way to help you. Let’s give you those guardrails so you can implement the law and the policy that you want,” she said.

Just last month Lopez’s office opposed Senate Bill 669 to legalize marijuana for personal use, but did so based on concerns that a variety of technical details and regulations still need to be worked out.

Lopez said she has agreed that her office will lead a task force between now and next session of the Legislature to “develop a complete regulatory and law enforcement legislative package that you can attach to any bill if you are planning to legalize marijuana.” The current session ends next month and the next session starts in January.

In response to a question on another topic from Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads, Lopez expressed skepticism about Hawaii’s system of civil asset forfeiture, the process that law enforcement agencies use to seize assets in some cases from people who have been arrested.

Hawaii law currently allows assets to be seized even from people who are never charged or convicted. The state auditor reported in 2015 that prosecutors only secured convictions in about one-fourth of the cases where property was seized.

Lopez said she discussed the issue with her deputy who supervises asset forfeiture for her office, and “my recollection is that he and I were both in agreement that taking somebody’s assets who is not convicted of a crime, and not giving them back, seems like it might be a bad idea.”

Rhoads said 121 people submitted testimony in support of Lopez, with only seven opposed. Most of her opponents cited her decision to hire an outside attorney to defend against court challenges to Hawaii firearms restrictions.

The committee voted 4-1 in support of her nomination, with Republican Sen. Brenton Awa voting against her. Lopez’s nomination now goes to the full Senate for a floor vote.

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