Advocates in Hawaii feel confident about the prospects of advancing marijuana legalization in the new session. This is because voters elected a pro-legalization governor and lieutenant governor during the November election. Lawmakers are now prepared to introduce reform legislation after officials finalized recommendations for legalization as part of a task force.
Representatives of major advocacy organizations, including the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), ACLU of Hawaii and Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii said at a press conference that they’re gearing up for an active session, with hopes to pass legislation to facilitate automatic record clearing and resentencing. They were joined by Rep. Jeanné Kapela (D), who planned to file legalization legislation and said, “this year, we stand on the precipice of history.” Kapela said her legislation would incorporate some of the recommendations made by a state cannabis task force that submitted a report on legalization policy considerations to the legislature ahead of the new session.
Legislators have worked to enact legalization in the Aloha State over several sessions. Still, while the reform was approved in the Senate in 2021, it stalled after failing to proceed past a House committee by a crucial deadline. Advocates didn’t get much help from the former Democratic governor, Dave Ige, who has resisted legalization, partly because he said he was reluctant to pass something that conflicts with federal law. That’s even though Hawaii has a medical marijuana system that allows people to grow and sell cannabis in contravention of broad federal prohibition. Now that Gov. Josh Green (D) has been sworn in, activists feel emboldened. In November, he said he’d sign a bill to legalize cannabis for adults and already has ideas about how the state could utilize tax revenue from marijuana sales.
How Does Hawaii’s Medical Marijuana System Work?
n 2000, Hawaii became the 8th state to legalize medical marijuana. Act 228 allows medical marijuana cardholders to grow their own cannabis or appoint a caretaker to help. However, it did not establish any legal market or dispensaries for the distribution of cannabis.
In 2015, the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program was created to require those who qualify for medical marijuana to register before using marijuana for medical purposes. Patients must have a licensed physician certify that their health condition can be benefited from medical marijuana and will then receive a 329 Registration Card issued by the Department of Health. The Department of Health aims to issue the card promptly so that patients can continue or start to use medical marijuana legally.
In July 2015, Act 241 was passed, which stated that the Hawaii Department of Health would administer the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program by 2016, and dispensaries could begin dispensing medical and manufactured marijuana products as early as July 2016, assuming that the Department of Health grants approval to these dispensaries.
To address the legal acquisition of cannabis, Senate Bill 321 established a dispensary system in 2016, allowing eight dispensaries in the state designated by the island. In August 2017, Maui made the first legal medical cannabis dispensary sale.
How Much Revenue Might Hawaii See If Marijuana Is Legalized?
The potential revenue sales could generate for Hawaii’s government if cannabis were legal (for adults without a prescription) would be significant. The state’s Tax Department annually projects $50 million in revenues to Hawaii’s government from cannabis legalization. However, dispensary operators believe it would bring in much more money. As of September 30, 33,725 patients in Hawaii have medical cannabis cards. There are eight licensed dispensaries across the state, which are currently only catering to around 8,000-9,000 patients. However, the president of one of the dispensaries, Aloha Green Apothecary, believes that patient numbers have increased over the last three years, especially during the pandemic and that revenue has doubled from two years ago. With the recent pardoning by President Biden on federal drug charges, dispensary operators are hopeful that a new administration will usher in a new era for cannabis legalization.
Could Legal Marijuana Help Boost Tourism?
Legalizing marijuana in Hawaii could help the state’s economy in many ways. One potential benefit is increased tax revenue. The state Tax Department projects $50 million in revenue to Hawaii’s government annually from cannabis legalization, and dispensary operators believe it could bring in even more money. Another potential benefit is the creation of jobs in the marijuana industry, including cultivation, processing, and retail sales.
Additionally, legalizing marijuana could help diversify Hawaii’s economy, which heavily depends on tourism. The state’s most popular crops, such as pineapple and sugar cane, are no longer financially sustainable so marijuana could be a replacement for them. Furthermore, Hawaii has iconic cultivars of marijuana, such as Maui Wowie, Big Island’s Kona Gold, and Kauai Electric, that have a long history and could become a significant source of revenue.
It’s also worth noting that there are concerns about the impact of marijuana legalization on public health and safety and the criminal justice system that would need to be addressed.