top of page
  • Nathanael Bueno

Cataloging the controversies of recreational marijuana use in Hawai'i

In a state engulfed with open landscapes of green, lush foliage, the cannabis plant remains limited to the general population. Pakalōlō, the Hawaiian word for marijuana, has a rich and ambiguous history in Hawai'i, and it was likely to have been introduced by European settlers in the early 1800s. The widespread use of this drug continued throughout the 20th century, and it became popular among military soldiers. During the late 1970s, there was a surge in various crimes and social issues surrounding the use of this drug, which led to an increase in law enforcement. Today, the state has allowed the medical use of marijuana and decriminalized possession for small amounts of the drug.

Hawai'i became the first state in the nation that legalized the medicinal use of marijuana in 2000 in accordance with Act 228. This allows patients suffering from medical conditions such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, or chronic pain to legally obtain cannabis.

However, it is still illegal to use cannabis recreationally making it hard for the general public to access the drug conveniently. Individuals that are caught possessing marijuana can face criminal charges with some threat to jail time. In Hawai'i, possessing up to three grams of cannabis will lead to a maximum fine of $130, but possession of any amount more than that would result in incarceration.

Regardless of Hawai'i’s limited decriminalization laws, those in support of the drug still find it frustrating as they would argue that permitting the recreational use of cannabis would lift the burden off of the criminal justice system and bring in more revenue for the state. Until these rules are changed, only people in Hawai'i with a medical need for cannabis will be able to obtain the plant.

The Hawai'i Bill

In January of this year, a discussion has been brought to the table yet again over the legalization of marijuana. The Hawai'i Senate introduced the bill SB669 which would permit the adult-use of cannabis for individuals over 21, and it was later passed in March by a vote of 22-3. The bill would have made Hawai'i the 22nd state in the US to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Although the bill made far more progress in the senate, the bill failed to receive a hearing in the state House of Representatives prior to the legislative deadline, which denies any hope for legalization to happen in 2023.

This setback disappointed many advocates of cannabis legalization, particularly those who argue for its economic advantages, and those who simply want to get buzzed. However, efforts are still being made to have the drug legalized for the future of Hawai'i.

Exploring the Advantages and Disadvantages

Over the years, the demand for the legalization of marijuana has grown in Hawai'i. Supporters of the drug are acknowledging the economic benefits as it would generate more revenue and diversify the economy. According to a report by the Hawai'i tax department, Medical Marijuana dispensaries generated an estimated $50 million in sales in 2021. Already a seemingly lucrative industry, it can be expected that revenue would increase if marijuana were to be legalized in the future.

Clyds, an advocate for the legalization of marijuana in Hawai'i, emphasizes the economic benefits that legalization would bring to the state. “The benefits of the legalization of marijuana is the benefit of job prospects,” he says. Given Hawai'i’s dependence on tourism, he argues that having marijuana legalized would provide a boost to the economy by creating a new source of economic development.

Among the benefits that marijuana legalization can bring, Clyds also notes that it could be “[...] reducing the agricultural displacement for private development.” It is especially important that marijuana cultivation does not happen at the expense of Hawai'i’s valuable agricultural resources, which is essential for both Hawai'i’s economy and cultural heritage. With regulations in place, Clyds believes that Hawai'i’s agriculture and the cannabis industry can coincide harmlessly.

The laws put into place that restrict the sale and distribution of the drug undoubtedly lead to a thriving black market in Hawai'i where marijuana is sold outside of regulated conditions. As a result, people are beginning to recognize that legalizing marijuana would simply benefit the economy and subvert the issues that have been introduced because of the black market, such as the lack of regulation and quality control.

Hawai'i state Senator Angus McKelvey says that “revenue is being generated from this. It’s going to the black market, organized crime [...]. It [instead] could be going to our communities, our schools, and supporting public programs and projects,” in an interview from local TV news station KITV.

However, there is still a vast range of concerns and challenges that must be endured in order for cannabis legalization to take effect. Among those include the concern over how much of an impact open marijuana use would have on the public’s health and safety. There is also a potential for an influx of drug abuse and addiction, which would need to be addressed with certain regulations put into place.

“Will the regulations allow those who were previously incarcerated with minor drug possession of marijuana to be released? Will these regulations allow essential workers such as healthcare providers to provide care while under the influence?” says Clyds. These are important questions among many that policymakers would have to consider in terms of marijuana legalization. It is not only important to consider how legalization would benefit the economy, but also how impactful it could be for social justice and public safety. The regulations that would be put into place require fair and equitable standards with reparations for harm caused by the War on Drugs.

In regard to public safety, health issues are among the more prominent concerns when it comes to marijuana legalization. Clyds believes that when cannabis is legalized, it is important to consider methods of consumption that do not harm respiratory health. This would include methods such as edibles, tinctures, or topical creams. According to Clyds, “smoking any substances will increase the risk of cardiovascular health which is the countries’ leading cause of death.” Thus, he emphasizes that promoting safer forms of cannabis consumption allows the community to gain a deeper understanding of the ongoing legalization of cannabis.


Other than going on a hike or skydiving, there really is no legal way to get high in Hawai'i. Despite recent setbacks, there is still progress, slow in fact, towards recreational marijuana legalization, and it is only a matter of time before Hawai'i joins the roster of states that legalized recreational marijuana use. Advocates and state officials are continuing to push for this to happen as they navigate the configurations between growing Hawai'i’s economy and preserving the safety of its communities. In the meantime, the people of Hawai'i will just have to ascribe to a different type of buzz, perhaps from a mai-tai.

222 views0 comments


bottom of page