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Could 2023 be the year recreational marijuana is legalized in Hawaiʻi?

Legal Pot marijuana cannabis
Jeff Roberson/AP
FILE - A marijuana sample is displayed for customers at Good Day Farm dispensary Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Hawaiʻi lawmakers are once again pushing for laws that would legalize cannabis for adult recreational use in the state.

Last year, a measure to legalize cannabis for anyone 21 and older gained traction, receiving a full floor vote before dying in the House. Now, several bills relating to the cultivation and sale of cannabis have passed their first readings and are awaiting committee hearings.

Currently, more than 30 states have collectively legalized or decriminalized cannabis in small amounts. In 2019, Hawaiʻi was among those to expunge penalties related to the possession of marijuana weighing in at 3 grams or less.

The law, which was passed without former Gov. David Ige's signature, makes it so small cannabis possession is only punishable by a fine of $130. Possessing more than 3 grams without a license is a petty misdemeanor.

Senate Bill 669, introduced by Sen. Joy San Buenaventura of Hawaiʻi Island at the start of the 2023 session, would allow for recreational cannabis possession in "small amounts."

"States that legalize cannabis see a reduction in opioid use. They see a reduction in painkillers that are prescribed. And they see a reduction in alcohol consumption," said Ty Cheng, president of the Hawaiʻi Cannabis Industry Association.

The law would allow for the growing of up to six cannabis plants as well, as long as they are stored in an enclosed, locked space.

Lawmakers and community members in favor of legalizing the usage argue that tax revenue derived from cannabis sales could benefit the state's economy.

Marjuana buds file photo from colorado
David Zalubowski/AP
FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2015, file photo, jars of marijuana buds sit on the counter at the Denver Kush Club in north Denver. (AP Photo/Dave Zalubowski,File)

SB669 says that as of November 2020, Colorado, the first state that underwent the removal of a commercial ban, collected $1.5 billion in total revenue from cannabis taxes and fees.

"By having a lower tax rate to begin, many states now understand that that allows for the legal market to compete better with the illicit market," Cheng said.

"And so we believe that a 10% tax rate, which is projected to bring in over $81 million of new tax revenue to the state, is a reasonable number to start," he said.

However, the 2021 Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado report showed that there can be potential negative health and safety factors tied to legalization as well. The report said that Colorado has seen an increase in cannabis-related DUIs, DUIDs and emergency department visits over the past years.

Medical marijuana, made legal across the islands more than a decade ago, has also received attention from lawmakers. Rep. Jeanné Kapela of Hawaiʻi Island has taken a vocal stance on widespread distribution.

"Legalizing cannabis is not just a matter of money, it is a matter of morality," Kapela said at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol last month.

"While tax dollars are important, the more pressing issue is whether or not we will continue allowing people, especially Native Hawaiians and other marginalized and minority communities, to continue being criminalized for consuming a plant," she continued.

Kapela introduced House Bill 237 this session, which would have allowed qualified out-of-state patients to obtain medical cannabis on the islands. However, the bill died Wednesday after a triple referral deadline. Its companion bill in the Senate has a hearing on Feb. 15.

Krista Rados is a Digital News Producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at krados@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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