Cannabis Legalization Languishes

But the cannabis task force points to a green future

A bill to legalize recreational cannabis use went up in smoke at the state legislature last month, marking the annual tradition of denying weed a hearing and leaving any chance for legalization to languish like a stoner with a bong on a couch. 

Much ink has been spilled about the policy, which allows state legislators to single-handedly kill bills if they happen to chair a committee to which the legislation is referred, simply by denying any hearings on the matter. I wrote about the issue for MauiTime  in 2013, when a decriminalization bill faced the same couch-locked fate. 

A young, green, intern, I didn’t quite understand the cloudy legislative report. Karl Rhoads, then Chair of the House Judiciary Committee (and now Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee) set me straight. 

“Would it be useful for voters to know whether their representative voted yes or no?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes. [But] It’s risky…nobody wants to lose.”

There are many political reasons one could speculate upon that would sway a committee chair to omit any discussion and votes from the record. And, if I’m being honest, this term’s death of HB955, the bill to empower unlicensed practitioners of traditional and indigenous midwifery, by the sole discretion of Finance Chair Kyle Yamashita is probably a better example of the harm of this power. (Or, take the fact that in the last 30 years, legislation to increase the minimum wage has only passed four times.)

Maintaining prohibition is a policy inconsistent with logic, and consistent with the racist artifacts of century-old United States legislation, so maybe it’s no surprise that legislators in opposition don’t want to go on the record to reveal their leanings.

Whatever the case, those opposing or stymying legislation of cannabis are clearly half-baked. Nineteen states have legalized recreational adult-use cannabis, and 39 states have legalized medical cannabis, including Hawaiʻi, where a cardholder can stroll into a dispensary to buy weed.

Last year, a development made legalization seem inevitable. In 2021, evidently feeling the heat after years of denying cannabis hearings, the legislature made another classic move of redirection: convene a task force. Over 2022, the Dual Use Cannabis Task Force (“dual use” refers to both medical and non-medical adult use) convened meetings and made recommendations to the state legislature.

We can learn from states that have legalized cannabis. Courtesy RODNAE Productions / Pexels

The report is a full 41 pages of recommended reading, but here are five findings that you’ll want to pass around:

  1. The Hawaiʻi cannabis market, as of 2021, was worth about $240 million, of which only $50 million comes from the legal medical cannabis industry. The remainder comes from illegal sales. And, while non-medical cannabis is illegal, it is already widely tolerated. If the state allowed a legal cannabis market to mature and addressed regulatory burdens on medical cannabis, legal sales could reach $172-$273 million, bringing in a net tax revenue of $34-53 million annually.
  2. Full legalization of cannabis is “vital to remediating racial disparities in enforcement.” In Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians are disproportionately impacted by enforcement of cannabis laws. Resentencing, record clearance, equity of employment and capital in the cannabis industry, and removal of law enforcement oversight are all recommendations which could further reduce racial disparities that are a product of cannabis prohibition.|
  3. Hawaiʻi can learn from other states that have already legalized, and we can improve upon our medical system. The current medical dispensary system, which limits licensees and requires single entities to handle all elements of production, manufacturing, and sale, requires significant capital investment and limits small businesses. By moving toward allowing a diversity of cannabis licenses, small businesses can enter the industry and customers would have access to a wider product range (read: “unique cannabis strains”). Opportunities could include home grows, cooperatives, and commercial farm operations with “Made in Hawaiʻi” branding.
  4. A survey conducted by the Hawaiʻi Department of Health at the request of the Medical Use Working Group found that most medical cannabis patients believe legalization of adult-use cannabis would have a positive effect on the medical use of cannabis. Survey respondents commented that legalization would help to facilitate access for medical use, while reducing the stigma toward medical cannabis users.
  5. The American Public Health Association has a policy statement on “A Public Health Approach to Regulating Commercially Legalized Cannabis,” which was endorsed by the task force for adoption by the state. The association views cannabis harms like those seen with alcohol and tobacco, and recommends similar evidence-based strategies of harm prevention.These include protection to children and youth from access and advertising, effective education, and continual data monitoring of patterns of cannabis use and health and safety outcomes.

Axel Beers