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Hawaii Senate Rejects Marijuana Decrim Expansion Bill, While Expungements Legislation Heads To Governor

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Lawmakers in Hawaii’s Senate on Monday voted down a bill that would have expanded the state’s existing marijuana decriminalization law, further denying reform efforts by advocates this legislative session following the failure of a separate broader legalization bill early this month. Meanwhile, separate legislation to facilitate expungements of past cannabis offenses is advancing to the governor’s desk.

The chamber voted 16–9 to reject the decriminalization expansion bill, SB 2487, which would have decreased the fine for low-level marijuana possession from $130 to $25. The new penalty would have applied to possession up to an ounce of cannabis—up from three grams under current law.

Possession of more than one ounce would have still carried criminal penalties, and a new violation would have punished public cannabis consumption with a $130 fine.

Senators who spoke against the proposal on the floor Monday generally warned that loosening laws around marijuana use would put children at risk and also fuel the illicit market.

“Illegal marijuana is unregulated, untested and untaxed,” said Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (D). “This creates a significant public health concern. It also contains pesticides, trace elements of metals like lead and nickel and other toxic chemicals. Decreasing penalties for illegal marijuana sends a message to our keiki and community that this drug is harmless. It is not.”

Sen. Angus McKelvey (D) said he was voting against the measure but supported a more regulated approach to reform, citing the legalization measure that recently died in the House.

“The Senate sent a very good, reasonable recreational legalization bill with guardrails over to the other chamber,” McKelvey said, warning that if decriminalization outpaces a legal system, “you could have a black market could explode, thereby undercutting and creating all the safety hazards that the bill we sent over should have addressed.”

The legislature did pass two other measures that would take steps toward expunging certain marijuana-related criminal records, however. Last week the House approved HB 1595, which would create a pilot program around marijuana expungements. It cleared the chamber on a 41–9 vote, with one member excused and now proceeds to Gov. Josh Green (D), who has said he supports legalization.

Senators on Monday also signed off on SB 2706, which would create a so-called Clean Slate Expungement Task Force charged with crafting legislation for a state-led record-clearing program. While that expungements bill does not explicitly mention cannabis, marijuana-related offenses are widely expected to be included in the would-be task force’s discussions.

The new body would include state officials—including the attorney general, chief justice, public defender and various prosecutors—as well as representatives from various advocacy groups, including ACLU, LPP, the Hawaii Innocence Project and others.

The governor can sign the bills, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

The Senate’s rejection of the decriminalization expansion proposal, from Sen. Joy San Buenaventura (D), was deflating for advocates, especially after the state’s separate plan to legalize marijuana fizzled out.

“It was shocking to see the Hawai’i Senate reject a bill that would have prevented hundreds of traumatic arrests and life-altering criminal records for conduct that Hawai’i voters and the Senate itself believe should be legal,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the group Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana moment in a statement.

Nikos Leverenz, board president for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i, said the action was “certainly a disappointment.”

“While Hawaii saw an uptick in legislative activity on cannabis decriminalization and adult-use cannabis legalization, the status quo remains,” Leverenz said in a statement. “Too many legislators this cycle have ceded to the histrionic arguments by many in the criminal legal lobby and others who want to ensure broad prohibition.”

He noted that currently marijuana prohibition “still ensnares hundreds of persons per year in the criminal legal system, with a disproportionate impact on under resourced Native Hawaiian and Pasifika Communities.”

“Hopefully next year’s legislature will produce a bona fide recalibration of cannabis policy in Hawaii,” he said, also calling for the federal government to “move with all due speed to remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act.”

The separate HB 1595, which now goes to the governor, would create a pilot program around marijuana expungements. The bill passed on a 41–9 vote on Thursday, with one member excused.

As initially introduced by sponsor Rep. David Tarnas (D), that measure would have directed the state to automatically expunge tens of thousands of arrest and conviction records for low-level marijuana possession. But the Senate Judiciary Committee last month gutted the proposal, replacing the statewide plan with a pilot program in Hawaii County that would apply only to non-conviction arrest records.

Hawaii County comprises the Big Island and is state’s second most populous after Honolulu County, home to about 14 percent of the state’s population.

The measure’s current scaled-back approach is the product of an amendment from Attorney General Anne Lopez (D). Her office told Marijuana Moment in an interview last month that the issue was budgetary, claiming, “There simply isn’t the money available for new kinds of projects that aren’t deemed necessary or crucial to the recovery” following massive wildfires that tore through Maui last August.

The Last Prisoner Project (LPP) advocacy group, which has worked with Tarnas on cannabis reforms, said in a release after the bill’s passage that it “will be a blueprint for how Hawai’i can begin to provide retroactive relief to the thousands of individuals who continue to suffer the consequences of having a criminal record for cannabis possession, an offense that has been decriminalized since 2019.”

In a statement from Tarnas in the LPP release, the lawmaker said he hopes the pilot project “will demonstrate that Hawai’i can grow this state-initiated expungement process to ensure that every individual that has been affected by a criminal records for cannabis possession is provided retroactive relief.”

Meanwhile the more-than-300-page legalization bill that failed to advance earlier this month was formally introduced in both chambers in January and is based on a legalization plan written by state Attorney General Lopez, who was appointed by the governor in December 2022. It would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and up to five grams of cannabis concentrates.

Tarnas, the bill’s sponsor in the House, has already committed to bringing a revised bill next session.

“During the interim, I look forward to working with the Attorney General’s office to improve the language of the bill to address issues brought up during the House debate on this bill,” he told Marijuana Moment in an email following the bill’s defeat. “I will be collecting factual information about public safety and public health concerns, including the assertion of some opponents that legalization would actually result in an increase in cannabis use by youth as well as an increase in fatal car crashes attributable to cannabis use.”

As for those claims, Tarnas continued, “I think the evidence shows that there is no evidence of any increase in use of cannabis by youth in legalization states, but I will gather the data and present it next session. Similarly, I think the evidence from legalization states shows that there has not been any demonstrable increase in car crashes by drivers that is attributable solely to cannabis use. But, I will gather the data on this topic and present it next session.”

While most of opposition to the legalization bill came from law enforcement, some Democratic leaders also vocally opposed the reform. Matayoshi, for instance—the Democratic majority whip who also opposed decriminalization—said before last month’s House floor vote that he didn’t think colleagues “should vote with reservations or vote in favor of this bill just to see it move along.”

“We can’t be voting on a bill that has some good parts but also has an incredible harm to our society in the form of legalizing recreational marijuana,” he said.

Last year the Senate passed a separate legalization bill that later stalled the House, but advocates were hopeful this year’s proposal could get further. Gov. Green said last month that legalization is a “big social issue that remains” to be addressed in the state, signaling that he’d likely sign a bill to end cannabis prohibition if lawmakers send him one.

Democrats in control of Hawaii’s Senate had said in January that cannabis legalization is one of their top priorities this legislative session, framing the reform as a means to boost the state’s economy.

Hawaii residents themselves seem to support the change. A recent Hawai’i Perspectives survey by the Pacific Resource Partnership found 58 percent support for legalization.

Advocates previously struggled under former Democratic Gov. Dave Ige, who resisted legalization in part because he said he was reluctant to pass something that conflicts with federal law. But since Green took office, activists have felt more emboldened. The current governor said in 2022 that he’d sign a bill to legalize cannabis for adults and already had ideas about how tax revenue could be utilized.

Last April, Hawaii’s legislature also approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.

As for other drug policy matters, lawmakers in February advanced a bill that would provide certain legal protections to patients engaging in psilocybin-assisted therapy with a medical professional’s approval. The measure would not legalize psilocybin itself but would instead create an affirmative legal defense for psilocybin use and possession in the case of doctor-approved use under the guidance of a trained facilitator.

Three In Five Americans Say Marijuana Is Safer Than Alcohol Or Tobacco, Survey Finds

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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