This Saturday marked a sad 4/20 for tokers and hemp fans across Hawaii. Well, sad probably isn’t the word (tears won’t be the reason eyes are red), but the recent failure of our state Legislature to pass meaningful cannabis law reform should be enough to dampen anyone’s vibe. Even in the wake of Colorado and Washington’s Nov. 6, 2012 legalization of recreational marijuana and despite widespread public support for the age old plant, the Hawaii Legislature has played it safe this session, passing on numerous rational bills that took shots at the failed, trillion dollar, decades-old federal “War on Drugs.”
The first of the cannabis-related bills to meet its demise swung the widest. HB699, introduced by House Speaker and Maui boy Joe Souki, D-Wailuku, followed Colorado and Washington’s example in aiming to authorize the use and possession of recreation marijuana for persons 21 and over, regulating it in a manner similar to alcohol. The proposed bill also allowed for licensing of facilities, an excise tax and safety testing.
SB472 was similar to HB699. The bills fell short of calling for the full legalization of cannabis, but nonetheless would have decriminalized the possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana by an adult. So, instead of going through the legal system song and dance only to get hit with a criminal charge that would damage chances at finding employment, earning student loans and grants and keeping your kids, the bill would have allowed your average gram-sack holder who got caught to simply pay a civil fine of $100.
Medicinal use of marijuana also made a push this session after 12 years of being in effect as a state program. HB667 hoped to draw from the experience of this program and make modifications that would “fulfill its original intent by clarifying provisions and removing serious obstacles to patient access and physician participation.”
Specifically, that bill would have allowed for transfers of plants between patients and caregivers, increased the amount of mature plants a person could own, transferred the program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health and allowed visiting patients from other states to participate in Hawaii’s medical marijuana program.
All the bills held early promise. HB699 elicited a widespread response from the public, with more than 500 pages of written testimony from lawyers, social service professionals, professors and reverends, among others. Support for the bill was overwhelming and came at the heels of a recent study showing that 57 percent of Hawaii residents favor legalized, taxed and regulated marijuana. The study also showed that 69 percent of residents thought jail time for marijuana offenses is inappropriate, and a review of the written testimonies (interesting reads, actually) show that less than 15 percent of individuals writing in opposed HB699.
SB472 and HB667 even made it out of their originating house. But the stories of how each of the three bills died are nearly identical.
First, the bill gained public support. Then, police departments and district attorneys weighed in, vilifying marijuana, spitting arguments dating back to the 1920s while praising the status quo. Then the bill went to the respective judiciary committee, where it fizzled out, mysteriously and without reason.
For instance, try to decipher the final status update of SB472, the decriminalization bill. According to the Hawaii Legislature webpage, the bill was finally “Recommitted to JUD with none voting no and Representative(s) Ito excused.”
In other words, the bill is dead. Even worse, all the above bills died without getting a formal vote. Instead, unofficial caucuses showed that since the bills, legislators wouldn’t bother holding an official vote. Politically, it was much safer for them to do it that way.
“Would it be useful for voters to know whether their representative voted yes or no?” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads, asked me rhetorically. “Yes. [But] It’s risky… nobody wants to lose.”
We attempted to contact each of Maui’s representatives at least three times via phone and email over the course of the last two months. The only legislator who responded to answer how he voted on the bills was Democratic Representative Angus McKelvey of District 10-West Maui, Ma’alaea and North Kihei-who supported all three measures. No one else responded.
The final distressing fact? Hawaii has no voter initiative process. Where Colorado and Washington found the power to work around the political game through putting the issue on voters’ ballots, we are stuck working with politicians too afraid to take a stand.