A measure drafted by the Attorney General’s Office would also establish a regulatory authority.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to show that Attorney General Anne Lopez hasn’t changed her stance on the issue. She does not support the legalization of marijuana but wants to make sure any legislation has included safeguards.

Hawaii lawmakers have been trying and failing to legalize the use of recreational marijuana by adults for years, but supporters think the latest proposed legislation has a chance to pass.

Law enforcement officials are worried. Police chiefs from all four counties joined Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and Prosecutor Steve Alm on Wednesday to speak out against the measure.

Big Island Police Chief Ben Moszkowicz gave a recent example, saying a 12-year-old student at Pahoa High and Intermediate School was hospitalized on Tuesday after she was found unresponsive on a school bench. A toxicology report showed she had a high level of cannabinoids in her system, he said.

“If you think increasing availability or making something more popular will cut down on these types of scenarios, you’re sorely mistaken,” he said during a press conference.

Senate Bill 3335 would allow recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21 and establish a statewide authority that would regulate the cannabis in all of its categories, including hemp, which is the same plant but contains lower levels of the psychoactive compound THC.

Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan speaks out against a bill drafted by the Attorney General’s Office that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in the state. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Lopez previously was against legalizing recreational marijuana but said last year that her office would no longer oppose it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Lopez had changed her stance on the issue.

She explained her decision to have her office draft the bill by saying she understood that such a measure may pass and she wanted to make sure it included “robust public-safety and public-health safeguards” due to the “significant risks to public safety and public health.”

Gov. Josh Green said this week that he would approve the drug for adult use as a lesser evil than cocaine and meth, Hawaii News Now reported.

“I also have some thoughts that marijuana might blunt the effect, if you will, of people on these heavy drugs, these horrible drugs, it is a relative sedative, people are far less violent, they are much hungrier,” Green was quoted as saying. “But they, aside from the snacking and stealing Cheetos, will probably do less harm.”

The bill has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, from law enforcement officials to groups like hemp growers, who say they don’t want hemp to be placed under the same regulatory umbrella as marijuana. 

Opposing Views

Hawaii became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 2000, and adult personal use in small amounts was decriminalized in 2019. But although the Senate has twice passed recreational legalization bills, the measures have never been voted on in the House, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, one of the introducers of SB 3335, said it’s time Hawaii takes a “rational approach” to regulating marijuana, especially as the federal government appears poised to reclassify it from a schedule I drug, which is the same level as heroin and LSD, to a schedule III drug, alongside ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.

“The war on drugs has failed,” she said. “There are a lot of scare tactics that are being promulgated, but the reality is, states like Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington who have legalized the dual-use system (medicinal and recreational use), are not becoming the crime dens that the scare tactics people are claiming is going to occur.”

But during a press conference Wednesday, the law enforcement officials and other opponents cited concerns that legalization could cause more young people to use marijuana and lead to higher rates of addiction and mental health issues.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura said she thinks a bill that would legalize adult recreational use of marijuana in Hawaii has a chance to pass this year because of the Attorney General’s support. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Alm said after the press conference that a provision in the bill allocating $5 million toward a public health and education campaign about the dangers of marijuana use by young people would likely be ineffective.

“That has never worked,” he said. “Alcohol, tobacco, vaping. Kids are going to do what they do, and if you say, ‘It’s legal and It’s safe,’ that’s going to cause a real problem.”

The bill could also have a chilling effect on tourism from Japan, said Ted Kubo, president and CEO of the tourism agency JTB Hawaii.

“Possession and use of marijuana is not accepted at all in Japanese society,” he said. “Associating Hawaii with recreational marijuana is very risky and concerning.” 

When asked if Japanese tourism had declined in other states that have legalized marijuana, Kubo replied that Hawaii is a unique case because of its economic dependence on tourism and high number of Japanese travelers that visit each year. Japanese tourists used to make up the majority of visitors from abroad but their numbers have fallen since the pandemic, largely due to inflation.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, another introducer of the bill who was not at Wednesday’s press conference, said that while concerns about the public health and social consequences of marijuana use are valid, legalizing it would make it easier to regulate and control.

The bill proposes an 18-month phase-in period that would allow legal operators time to establish themselves within a regulatory framework and give law enforcement officials time to prepare before retail sales would begin. A portion of the taxes collected from marijuana would also go toward establishing a “cannabis enforcement unit” within the Department of Law Enforcement.

“We are trying to put together a comprehensive bill that takes into account the present reality we live in,” he said.

A Senate committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for Tuesday.

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