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Hawaii Attorney General Sends Marijuana Legalization Bill To Lawmakers, But Says She ‘Does Not Support’ It

Hawaii’s attorney general is clarifying that despite unveiling a draft marijuana legalization bill in November and subsequently defending the proposal against criticism from law enforcement, her office does not, in fact, support legalizing cannabis for adult use. But the office also won’t actively work to oppose it the reform—as long as any legislation that is advancing contains several “key elements.”





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On Friday, Attorney General Anne Lopez’s (D) office sent lawmakers a revised 315-page draft bill to legalize cannabis as well as 38-page report outlining related issues.


“The draft bill is not ‘the Department of the Attorney General’s cannabis bill,’” Lopez emphasized in a press release Friday. “The draft bill was prepared to give the Legislature a legislative option to consider—a draft with public safety and public health protections embedded into its structure. Should the Legislature decide to legalize adult-use cannabis, the draft bill represents our best judgment about how to promote a legal market, minimize risks of societal harm, mitigate damage that does come to pass, avoid liability and provide workable tools and substantial resources for law enforcement and public-health officials to promote the public welfare.”

 

Lopez said explicitly in the release that the department “does not support the legalization of adult-use cannabis.”


“We acknowledge that with changing public perception in recent years, the odds that the Legislature may pass legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis have increased substantially,” she said. “Given that the Legislature could theoretically pass a bill as early as this year, it is my department’s duty to warn the Legislature of the risks, while simultaneously providing a framework that includes robust public-safety and public-health safeguards.”


The comments accompanied the department’s publication of a final draft bill as well as the office’s report on the legislation. That report, in a section on the department’s position on legalization, seems to suggest a more neutral position despite Lopez’s emphasis in the state’s press release on not supporting the plan.


“Despite the substantial work put into the final draft bill, the department does not support the passage of the legalization of adult-use cannabis,” says the report itself, with italicized and underlined text for emphasis. “But the department will not oppose the passage of a bill, and will remain neutral on the question of its passage, so long as the bill contains the key elements identified in this section and does not include provisions antithetical to these elements, as it may be amended through the legislative process.”


Indeed, though the press release only includes comments emphasizing the office “does not support” legalization, Lopez also didn’t explicitly say her office opposes the policy change.

Reached by email Friday, a spokesperson for Lopez’s office responded by pointing to the report’s statements on neutrality.


“The department does not support legalization of cannabis, but will remain neutral on the question of the bills passage, so long as the bill contains the key elements identified in the report and does not include provisions antithetical to these elements, as it may be amended through the legislative process,” the spokesperson said.


Hawaii lawmakers have introduced legalization legislation in recent sessions, with the Senate passing a reform bill in March, but it’s yet to be enacted. However legislators—and the attorney general herself—have signaled that 2024 is the year legalization will become law.

Lopez has walked a fine line on cannabis legalization since being appointed by Gov. Josh Green (D) in late 2022, saying at a confirmation hearing last April that it’s “the legislature’s area to make those decisions.” She then committed at that hearing to leading an administrative task force “between now and next legislative legislative session to develop a complete regulatory and law enforcement legislative package that you can attach to any bill if you’re planning to legalize marijuana”—a commitment that led to the current bill.


“I’ve changed our position from opposition to ‘that train has left the station,’” Lopez said at the time. “So let’s find a way to help you. Let’s give you those guardrails so that you can implement the law and the policy that you want.”


In November, the AG’s office defended the legislation it put forward earlier that month after Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said law enforcement are firmly against legalizing marijuana in general and Lopez’s plan specifically.


David Day, a special assistant with the attorney general’s office, said at the time that Alm’s concerns were overblown and the legalization measure that’s been put forward deliberately took into account law enforcement perspectives.

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“The Department of Law Enforcement, which is that state’s leading law enforcement agency, worked collaboratively with the Department of the Attorney General on this bill,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is present a bill that tries to mitigate as many of those risks as possible.”


House Judiciary Committee Chairman David Tarnas (D) said after Lopez initially unveiled the bill in November that the attorney general did “a really good job pulling together all of the different input and providing a comprehensive bill.” Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D), chair of the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, called the measure “the best version to date.”


Advocates, meanwhile, were encouraged by the introduction of the reform proposal by the high-ranking state official. But while they said they supported several key components, such as the inclusion of a home grow option, they also identified areas where they wanted to see equity-focused changes to incorporate meaningful relief for people who’ve been criminalized over cannabis and prevent further penalization over marijuana-related activity.


Nikos Leverenz, of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, told Marijuana Moment that it’s crucial for Green’s administration work with legislative leaders on legalization.


“Hawaii’s attorney general has provided a valuable yet problematic framework for deliberation by the House and Senate this session,” he said in an email. “With the Department of Health also likely to be less than supportive of any adult-use legalization measure, whatever its contents, it is important for Governor Green to work proactively with legislative leadership through the legislative process.”


“Decades of cannabis prohibition, including its excessively punitive regime of criminalization and coercive control of those from under resourced communities, have been a consummate failure from the standpoint of public safety and public health,” Leverenz added. “It’s time to move toward consumer safety, sensible health regulations, and economic prosperity.”


Meanwhile, the separate legalization bill that advanced through the Senate in March is still in play in the two-year legislative session. Advocates appreciated that the legislation additionally provides for expungements, but it’s been stalled in the House.


Advocates struggled under former Democratic governor, Dave Ige, who resisted legalization in part because he said he was reluctant to pass something that conflicts with federal law.

But since Green took office, activists have felt more emboldened. He said in 2022 that he’d sign a bill to legalize cannabis for adults and already has ideas about how tax revenue from marijuana sales could be utilized.


Last April, the Hawaii legislature also approved a resolution calling on the governor to create a clemency program for people with prior marijuana convictions on their records.


In August, a state psychedelics task force that was established under the governor’s office held its first meeting as experts work to prepare the state to potentially allow regulated access to novel therapies like psilocybin and MDMA.