50 States

50 States: Hawaii

By David Jenison

50 States: Hawaii

Medical: Yes
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: No

Hawaii, star number 50 on the U.S. flag, is a volcanic island chain deep in the Pacific that stretches 1,500 miles from the northwestern Kure Atoll to the southeastern Big Island. People commonly associate the islands with tropical nature, big-wave surfing, fire-breathing volcanoes and indigenous Polynesian-based culture, but cannabis aficionados think of strains like Kona Gold and Maui Waui when discussing the pakalolo-friendly state.

In 2000, Hawaii became the sixth U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana (MMJ), and the move was historic because the state legislature, not a voter initiative, brought the change. By contrast, MMJ legalization in the previous five states (California, Oregon, Alaska, Washington and Maine) all took place at the ballot box. Hawaii passed SB 862 HD1 in June of that year, but the move came with a major caveat. Patients with a qualifying condition—cancer, glaucoma, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and HIV/AIDS among them—did not have a legal outlet from which to procure their medicine. Doctors could recommend but not prescribe the plant, and dispensaries and production centers remained illegal. Instead, MMJ patients had to grow their own plants (up to three mature and four immature plants) or have a designated caregiver cultivate the plants for them exclusively, meaning that a caregiver can only grow for one person at a time.

In June 2013, the state legislature finally increased access by amending thelaw with two additional bills. The first moved the MMJ program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health, state agencies that clearly have different mandates. The second bill changed several key definitions—e.g., an “adequate supply” of seven plants no longer distinguishes between mature and immature—and created mechanisms for law enforcement to verify patient status. Then in July 2015, Governor David Ige signed another MMJ law that finally established the framework for the state to open 16 dispensary locations. 

After more than 15 years, a tightly controlled MMJ program finally started in 2016. The new law prohibits counties from discriminating against dispensaries and production centers via zoning regulations, and medical cards from other states will be accepted in Hawaii as early as 2018. Moreover, the state hopes to get around federal banking concerns with cashless cannabis transactions: Patients can only pay for the medicine using the CanPay debit app. This protects dispensaries from robberies—including approved government thieves who used asset forfeiture laws—a common concern among cash-only cannabis enterprises. 

In a written statement after the 2015 bill signing, the governor stated, “I support the establishment of dispensaries to ensure that qualified patients can legally and safely access medical marijuana. We know that our challenge going forward will be to adopt rules that are fair, cost effective and easy to monitor. The bill sets a timeline. We will make a good faith effort to create a fair process that will help the people most in need.”

Cannabis is widely available and a major part of the culture in Hawaii. A full legalization bill died in committee in 2014, but early that same year, a QMark Research poll found that 66 percent of the state favored ending prohibition altogether, and that figure has likely increased since. The state lacks a citizen ballot initiative process, but most prognosticators suspect it will be one of the next states to legalize adult recreational use. Maybe, as with the MMJ law in 2000, Hawaii will be become the first state to legalize recreational use via the legislature. In the meantime, the state should at least decriminalize the plant.

Photo credit: Unsplash

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