Laid-Back Hawaii's Strict Approach to Marijuana

After 16 years, medical-cannabis patients in the state can finally buy pot from dispensaries. But there’s a lot of fine print.

A smiley face smokes a joint of marijuana.
Mark Blinch / Reuters

HONOLULU—Aloha Green is situated in a downtown building whose austere beige-ness belies the company’s more therapeutic purpose: It’s a medical-marijuana dispensary.

As soon as I tried to walk inside for an interview, I was met by a metal detector and a large man who demanded to see my medical-marijuana card. I don’t have one—I don’t live in Hawaii and am not seeking the most herbal of cures for my ailments—so I’m told to wait outside. All I catch a glimpse of is a small window behind which some workers toil away quietly, like they’re at a bank.

Instead, I was lead upstairs to the dispensary’s office by Helen Cho, Aloha Green’s director. Printed out and wallpapering half the conference room was the entirety of Hawaii’s medical-marijuana legislation. They don’t want to miss a single, nit-picky detail.

And there are a lot of them. They can’t sell paraphernalia, like rolling papers, or edibles. Everything has to be grown indoors and tested before it can go out to customers. Shoppers can look at the bright-green buds under a magnifying glass, but they’re forbidden from touching the product.

The litany of restrictions might seem odd for a state that’s solidly Democratic and is known—or at least stereotyped—as being easygoing and fun. As more and more states legalize marijuana, Hawaii’s cautious attitude shows just how much the definitions of “legal” can vary. “The stereotype is that everything east of the Mississippi is medical, like Delaware and New York, and everything west of it is the Wild West [of pot],” said Mark Kleiman, a professor of public service at New York University who has researched marijuana laws extensively. “I guess if you go east to Hawaii rather than west, you can count them as part of the east-coast school.”

Cannabis—known locally as pakalolo—has a long history in Hawaii, both before and after criminalization at the federal level. As Lawrence Downes, a New York Times journalist from Hawaii, explained in an editorial for the paper in 2012:

Hawaii in the late ’70s was a land of artisanal home growers and farmers producing legendary strains like Maui Wowee and Puna Butter. Rolling Stone in 1979 called pakalolo Hawaii’s No. 1 crop, above sugar and pineapple. Its sickly sweet haze hung heavily over concerts and beaches, and there was a remarkable tolerance in the air, too.

Medical cannabis was legalized here rather early, in 2000, but Aloha Green and other dispensaries only secured licenses in the past year or so. It took that long for the state to authorize dispensaries.

Aloha Green is one of eight such dispensaries in the state, and one of three on Oahu, the island that’s home to the bulk of the state’s population. About 5,000 patients participate in Oahu’s medical-marijuana program, the only way to gain access to the dispensaries and their goods.

After the licensing, it took nearly a year for Aloha Green to actually open for business. In the interim, they were growing their own product—another requirement. Dispensaries can’t buy their pot from one another or other sources.

In a recent editorial, Chris Garth, the head of the Hawaii Dispensary Alliance, argued that this so-called vertical-integration mandate drives up prices and has limited cultivation on the island to just a few strains. If marijuana is considered medicine, this would be like going to a drugstore and finding just Vicks VapoRub and Pepto-Bismol on offer, he argued.

In an interview, Garth explained that he understands the public-safety reasons for controlling the plants from seeds to sale. Still, “the vertically oriented market is incredibly cumbersome when it comes to the costs of production,” he said.

These regulations make the pot at Hawaii’s dispensaries more expensive than it is in places where marijuana flows freely and recreationally, like Colorado or Washington State. (Customers can pay with cash or with CanPay, an app designed for cannabis retailers. Aloha Green doesn’t take regular credit cards.)

Cho, who doesn’t use cannabis herself, seemed drawn to the cannabis industry by these challenges. She worked in start-ups in New York before moving here—apparently the only thing as tough as venture capital in the big city is operating a marijuana store in paradise.

Dispensaries here are regulated by the health department. Cho speculated, nicely, that their bureaucratic overseers might be, well, a little square. “They all have very good intentions, but because they are upright citizens who’ve not done bad things, they don’t really know about cannabis culture and the way that it works,” she said. “Understandably, they haven’t ventured into it, because they are good citizens who don’t break the law.”

She has the health department virtually on speed dial. On a given day she might ask them, for example, does posting a menu of available products violate the ban on advertising? “Right now we are trying to understand the language that’s in legislation for packaging,” she said. It’s not allowed to be attractive to children.

Franklin G. Snyder, a law professor at Texas A&M University, says that while nothing Hawaii is doing is especially unusual, the combination “makes it one of the strictest laws in the country.” The vertical-integration rule might be there to prevent a big tobacco–esque conglomerate from taking over the state’s marijuana market. Or it might make the industry easier to regulate. He predicts Hawaii might loosen its medical-marijuana regulations after the first few dispensaries get off the ground.

“Given the general attitudes in Hawaii, once they get their feet wet, I think they will liberalize,” he said.

Kleiman, meanwhile, thinks medical marijuana is often just the first skid on the slippery slope to full legalization. “Why Hawaii hasn’t gone ahead and legalized marijuana, I don’t know,” he said.

There is, of course, the other possibility. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is notoriously anti-pot, might shut Aloha Green and other dispensaries down entirely by enforcing federal drug laws more rigorously. In case that day comes, Cho and her colleagues are making sure they’ve followed the law to the letter. It helps that several members of the dispensary’s executive team are lawyers.

“Everyone wants to just be sure that they are doing the right thing,” Cho said, “because at the end of the day, we are still dealing with a Schedule I drug.”