A Tale of Two Hawaiis
In the 50th state, cannabis is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s kosher.
Published on March 15, 2016

In Hawaii there is a thriving cannabis culture. It is one of the few states whose annual crops are worth more than $1 billion.

Seventy percent of  high schoolers say they’d have no problem getting their hands on some if they choose, and according to NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the state has the highest rates of use among adults 18 and over.

Kine bud and Maui Wowie are terms that have invaded pop culture to such an extent that even the people who still call cannabis “the devil’s lettuce” have probably heard them.

When outsiders think of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s hard not to picture a place where everything gets taken a little easier, a little less seriously, and the streets are paved with relaxation aids from umbrella-wearing drinks to fat, sticky joints.

But Hawaii is also a place where despite having a 15 year history with medical cannabis, legislation seems to drag behind. Cannabis is ubiquitous, but the government has done everything in its power to keep it out of the hands of its citizens.

Until this year, medical cannabis patients had to grow their own in the Aloha State, which was inconvenient, especially for patients for whom smoking was not an option.

When you have to create an edible or a concentrate with home-grown, it adds steps to the process that are much more conveniently taken care of by outside sources in other states like Colorado and California. It’s not exactly reasonable, after all, to expect someone with advanced cancer or chronic pain to be able to cultivate and prepare their medicine alone.

Hawaii has finally wised up to this fact after a decade and a half of medical cannabis, but the benefits are still for a relative few.

In Hawaii, in order to be assigned a medical cannabis card, one needs to suffer from Cancer, Crohn’s Disease, HIV/AIDS, Glaucoma, PTSD, seizures or other chronic illnesses, while more of the population than any other state continues to toke up recreationally or to self-medicate for unapproved conditions.

Meanwhile, the recreational penalties in Hawaii are particularly harsh for a state with a reputation as an easygoing island paradise. Possession of less than an ounce can result in a month-long prison sentence and a $1,000 fine, while anywhere from an ounce to a pound can land you a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

If you’re holding more than a pound, you’re looking at five years behind bars and a $10,000 mandatory donation to the government. Penalties for sale and delivery move up unsurprisingly, with anything over an ounce becoming a felony.

A particularly strange addendum is that if the sale takes place within 10 feet of a parked school vehicle, it immediately becomes a felony. So, if someone buys a dub from their best friend in a car across the street from a parked, empty school bus, they could face half a decade behind bars.

As Hawaii finally begins to implement a dispensary system to allow its medical cannabis patients an alternative to cultivation, an entirely new problem begins to show its face.

Each of Hawaii’s islands has its own relationship to cannabis and county-by-county enforcement can vary. Dispensaries will be extremely limited, as will some citizens’ access to them.

So far only three are planned for the city and county of Honolulu, two each for the counties of Hawaii and Maui and one for Kauai. There is a provision for adding more in 2017, but as of the first dispensaries to open in July, many will be impossible for patients in need to get to.

This year will be a make-or-break year for the Aloha State, one in which the people of Hawaii decide whether they want to live up to their reputation as a paradise apart from the nonsensical whimsies of Washington.

Tim Baker
Tim Baker is a New York-based writer and sometimes editor whose work has appeared in Newsweek, TV Guide, CBS and Discovery Special Editions, and can regularly be found at He has an MFA in creative writing from The New School and also attended Hunter College of the City University of New York.
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