Updated July 9, 2019: Hawaii’s cannabis decriminalization bill became law on Tuesday, as Gov. David Ige failed to either sign or veto the measure by a state-imposed deadline. Ige did, however, veto two separate measures: one that would have established a state-licensed hemp program and another that would have allowed medical cannabis to be transferred between Hawaiian islands.
Hawaii, the cradle of Maui Wowie, Kona Gold and other classic strains, may soon become the 23rd state (along with Washington, DC) to decriminalize low-level possession of cannabis.
Earlier this week, the state’s House and Senate passed a final vote on a measure that will decriminalize the possession of up to three grams of marijuana starting on Jan. 11, 2020.
The bill now moves to Hawaii Gov. David Ige for his signature or veto. Ige hasn’t signaled which way he’ll go. Cindy McMillan, Ige’s communications director, told Leafly that the bill “will undergo departmental and legal review before the governor will make a decision on it.”
If he vetoes the bill, Ige must notify the Legislature by June 24. He has until July 9 to sign the bill into law. After that date, the bill will become law without his signature.
What’s Decriminalized, Exactly?
Under current law, people in Hawaii found in possession of an ounce or less of marijuana can be prosecuted on misdemeanor charges. They could face 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
But under the new legislation, a person found in possession of three grams of cannabis or less would receive a $130 fine, with no arrest or jail time. The measure would also expunge criminal records in the state for those who have been prosecuted for three grams or less.
‘Misunderstanding the Drug’
There was some opposition to the decriminalization measure at the state house in Honolulu.
State Rep. Sharon Har said the bill “demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the drug.” She also expressed concerns that the decriminalization measure did not require minors to attend drug rehab programs–and that it didn’t take into account the different THC levels in different strains of marijuana.
But supporters of decriminalization in Hawaii point to the how the current laws on marijuana possession can have wide-ranging and negative impacts.
“In Hawaii we spend about $146 per day incarcerating people, often for substance abuse convictions,” State Rep. Chris Lee, who helped to introduce the bill, told Leafly
Having costly penalties and jail time for people possessing small amounts of cannabis, he added, “sends people further into poverty and further away from jobs and a productive future—for something which is clearly far less harmful than alcohol or any number of other things that are already legal.”
Mixed Emotions From Activists
Some supporters of the measure, while welcoming the change, also expressed doubts.
In a statement issued earlier this week Carl Bergquist, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said the bill “marks a long overdue turning point for the Aloha State.”
But he added that his organization remains “concerned that the low threshold of three grams, with its relatively high fine, will foil the good intentions of the bill. There are sound reasons that all other states–including Alabama, Missouri and Texas which are currently contemplating decriminalization–have set their threshold at ten grams, or half an ounce, or higher.”
Gov. Ige Previously Voted in Favor
Bergquist noted that Gov. Ige has a voting record that might lean toward signing the bill—or at least not killing it with a veto. Ige voted for an unsuccessful decriminalization bill in 2013 while he was a state senator.
“We would urge the governor to sign this bill into law as soon as possible,” Bergquist said. “There’s no reason to delay this small reform for even a second, because people are being criminalized on a daily basis. We have hundreds of people being arrested each year for cannabis possession.”
Bergquist said about 200-plus bills are arriving on the governor’s desk this week as the annual legislative session winds down, so it might take some time before Gov. Ige actually gets to the decriminalization measure.
Is Adult-Use Legalization Next?
While decriminalization may not be a pathway to adult-use legalization, Rep. Lee believes such legalization is inevitable everywhere in the U.S.
“It’s just a matter of time, both at the federal level and with the states,” he said. “So I think that applies here in Hawaii just as it would in any other state.”