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A Hawaii Senate committee approved a bill Feb. 7, 2019, to legalize marijuana for adults 21 older in the state.

A week earlier, the Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing and listened to spirited testimony from advocates and opponents of cannabis reform. When the committee reconvened for its latest meeting, they voted unanimously to advance the legislation forward.

“This is the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that a legislative committee here has moved a legalization bill,” Carl Bergquist, executive director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii (DPFH), told Marijuana Moment. “It's very exciting.”

The bill won't immediately go to a full Senate vote, he said. It will likely be referred to one or two additional Senate panels before the chamber gets the chance to approve it.

As it's currently written, the legislation would allow adults 21 and older to possess, cultivate and consume marijuana. The government would license facilities to manufacture, test, and sell cannabis, which would be subject to a state excise tax as well as a 15 percent surcharge.

The committee announced that the Department of Health, which oversees the state's medical cannabis system, would be responsible for regulating retail sales, whereas the bill originally called on the Department of Taxation to regulate marijuana.

DPFH recommended including restorative justice elements, such as expunging the criminal records of those with past marijuana convictions, in the bill. It's not clear whether such an amendment was passed, though, as amendments will likely become publicly available over the next week.

There's optimism among advocates that the bill will clear the Democratic-controlled legislature. Democratic Senate President Ron Kouchi said in January that discussing legalization would be a legislative priority this session, and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kalani English concurred, saying the state has reached a “tipping point” on the issue.

What's not clear is whether Democratic Gov. David Ige will sign a legalization bill. He's expressed concerns about running against federal laws, despite the fact that medical cannabis dispensaries already operate in Hawaii in violation of federal law, and has vetoed more incremental cannabis reform legislation in the past.

If legalization is enacted, however, retail sales would begin in February 2021 at the earliest.