New pot law goes into effect Jan. 11

  • A marijuana plant grows in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Legislation passed by lawmakers earlier this year that decriminalizes the possession of three grams or less of marijuana and allows such past possessions to be expunged from criminal records will take effect early next year.

The legislation makes possession of that small amount of marijuana a violation punishable by a $130 fine and also establishes a marijuana evaluation task force to make recommendations for changing possession penalties Hawaii.

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House Bill 1383 was neither vetoed nor signed by Gov. David Ige and was allowed to become law without his signature in July. It goes into effect Jan. 11.

While the legislation is meaningful, “we had to make it very minimal to get anything passed,” said State Rep. Richard Creagan, D-Kona and Ka‘u, a cosponsor of the bill.

“It’s important, but not because of the amount, because of the fact that anything passed,” he said. “There (was) a lot of fear the governor would veto it and he let it pass without his signature.”

Ige said in June that it was a “very tough call,” and that he went back and forth on the decriminalization of the drug.

The governor did, however, veto two pieces of hemp-related legislation this year — one that would establish a permanent industrial hemp program and another that would allow qualified patients to transport medical cannabis between islands for personal use.

Creagan, a physician, said the new law will have to be expanded in the not-too-distant future “to be really more meaningful,” but it sends those in public safety a message “that we don’t want people to be punished for small amounts of cannabis.”

Police Chief Paul Ferreira doesn’t expect the decriminalization of such a minute amount to affect police operations much, adding that the department isn’t “going out looking for that amount of weed.”

“Amounts that small, we’d only find it incidentally,” he said.

When asked whether expanding decriminalization will be addressed in the upcoming legislative session in January, Creagan said, “I hope so.”

Being an election year could help or hurt efforts to do so, he said, but added that Ige, who is not eligible for re-election in 2022, is “sort of lame duck governor at this point. He can do whatever he wants (and) is not going to be very responsive to pressure.”

If an expanded version of the law is passed by the Legislature, Creagan said there’s the question of whether the governor would veto the measure or not.

State Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-Hilo and Hamakua and another cosponsor of the legislation, said a lot is heard about the medical benefits to small amounts of marijuana, “so by providing the opportunity for patients or anyone to possess small amounts and have it be a fine rather than any kind of criminal violations would work to assist those people that receive the medical benefits from marijuana.”

For his part, Nakashima said he’d rather see medical marijuana laws expanded rather than further decriminalization, “however, I think the (decriminalization) route does open up the availability of marijuana to a lot more individuals who may not necessarily quality for the stringent protocols for the medical marijuana.”

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky contributed to this story.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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