Legal Status of Marijuana in Hawaii remains Cloudy

For many residents of the islands, a certain relaxed attitude towards marijuana remains, even as it remains criminalized. In light of other states legalizing the drug for recreational use (Washington and Colorado most notably), Hawaii continues to have relatively strict laws on marijuana on its books. That may soon change however, with two new bills in front of the legislature that may prove to be stepping stones to eventual legalization of the drug.

The first is House Bill 321, which was passed by the Legislature and now sits on Governor Iger’s desk. This bill would authorize eight medical marijuana dispensaries in Hawaii (2, on the Big Island, 2 on Maui, 3 on Oahu, and a single one on Kauai). Each dispensary license allows for the holder to cultivate up to 3,000 plants for sale. Presumably, customers will be able to obtain a medical marijuana card in order to purchase from one of these dispensaries. The issuing of dispensary licenses will be left to the Hawaii Health Department. The legislature will remain in recess until 2016, so no action on these dispensary licenses will occur until next year even if the Governor signs the bill into law.

A second bill, Senate Bill 879 has even further reaching possibilities for the pro-legalization supporters. This bill would remove the criminal penalties associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana, and replace them with civil penalties. This would be similar to a traffic infraction or parking ticket. “Possessing less than an ounce will be a civil violation. It’ll be a fine of $100,” Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran said. Doing so would remove the stigma of a criminal charge or conviction for those caught with small amounts of marijuana. It would, its supporters say, free up law enforcement funds and personnel to focus their efforts on other, more serious crimes. The bill has not yet been passed by vote by the full Senate.

While neither of these bills legally approves marijuana for recreational use, they are indicative of the increasingly permissive attitude towards marijuana, both in Hawaii and in the continental U.S. As more and more governments face budget holes that could be partially-fixed with marijuana taxes, while their citizenry increasingly resists further criminalization of the drug, these legislative acts may be just the first steps towards legalization of the drug nationwide.