HONOLULU - Several key Hawaii lawmakers want to legalize marijuana in the Aloha State.
House Speaker Joseph Souki and House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, both Democrats, introduced a bill to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people aged 21 years or older.
Nine lawmakers have co-sponsored a similar bill in the state Senate. Yet another bill co-sponsored by 11 representatives is waiting to be introduced in the House.
The move comes in the wake of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington last year.
Sen. Kalani English, a Democrat who introduced the Senate bill, said he thinks the initiative has a good chance of passing the state Senate.
"We're at the same crossroads in the U.S. that we were at Prohibition," he said. "(Legalizing alcohol) didn't spell the end of society, and that's the same with this."
Despite his support for the initiative, Saiki said he doesn't think there's enough support for the bill in the House right now.
"I'm not holding my breath on whether this will pass or not," he said.
Regardless, Saiki said he thinks it is important to discuss the issue, which he calls a matter of individual choice, because it has evolved over time.
The senators who sponsored the bill to legalize the drug say that doing so will decrease crime rates and help Hawaii's economy.
They say that legalizing the substance is "natural, logical and reasonable" given current scientific research and public opinion.
Opponents, including House Minority Leader Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, say the senators have it wrong. They believe legalization may increase crime.
"I'd rather exercise more caution than have to worry about controlling the extra societal costs," Johanson said.
Saiki acknowledged that there are "significant public safety concerns" associated with his proposal that led him to add quantity limits and other regulations to the measure.
Johanson says there are mixed feelings toward legalization in the minority caucus.
Medical marijuana is legal in Hawaii. The Legislature has considered bills to legalize the substance for recreational use in the past and faced opposition from the law enforcement community.
Michelle Yu, spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department, said that the agency is against legalizing marijuana. She said that the drug has a high potential for addiction and abuse.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro is also opposed to marijuana legalization.
The state Legislature will consider at least 18 bills related to marijuana this session.