The State of Aloha

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant young man from the small city of Limerick in the midwestern region of Ireland. There was little opportunity on the Emerald Isle so he did what many promising students did: he moved.

O’Shaughnessy was lucky and smart enough to transfer to the prestigious University of Edinburgh’s medical school at the impressive age of 18. He flourished, but couldn’t find a job after he graduated.

Eventually he landed a job as an assistant surgeon to a large shipping company, but it required him to move far from home — to India. There, O’Shaughnessy became more than a doctor’s assistant. He was a man of all talents and disciplines. While interacting with the locals, he came across a plant used for medicinal purposes: cannabis.

The medicinal use of the plant we now call marijuana was unknown at the time. He, like many doctors and researchers, started cautiously on animals and did not move on to human subjects until he determined that cannabis was safe.

He presented his findings to the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta and featured how cannabis was used for patients suffering from rheumatism, cholera, tetanus, and even a 40-day-old baby with convulsions called febrile seizures. The results were mixed. While what the Indians called “ganja” did not cure the illness, it did help for relieving pain and quelling muscle spasms. The year was 1839.

O’Shaughnessy returned to England with the plant and his research. He published and presented his research on cannabis. It was a hit. Soon thereafter, more and more researchers and doctors became interested in using cannabis as a way of reliving pain for their patients. It was even rumored that the queen of England was prescribed cannabis. The Western world had discovered medical marijuana.

Just three years after O’Shaughnessy presented his findings on cannabis, a word popped up in a Honolulu newspaper for the first time. Ka Nonanoa, a Hawaiian language newspaper, needed a word for the medicine advertised all over the world. It came up with a word used all over the islands: pakalolo. While many have believed it to mean “crazy smoke,” the literal meaning is “numbing tobacco.”

Scholars have pointed out that in Hawaii, pakalolo was often used for medicinal purposes up until the overthrow of the kingdom and eventual annexation to the United States.

Then the crackdown began. The United States had started to criminalize the drug. It took on a very different name: marijuana. Hawaii joined the rest of the United States in slowly but surely criminalizing its use.

After statehood, however, pakalolo enjoyed a resurgence thanks in large part of the droves of hippies that came to the islands. The hippies and counterculture enthusiasts were known for cultivating, growing and sharing marijuana with locals out in the country. An explosion of cannabis strains with colorful appellations — Maui Wowie, Kona Gold and Kauai Electric — became known throughout the pot-smoking world.

It soon became part of local culture. A survey of popular songs in the 1970s can find references to the stuff all over the place. Even Don Ho got in on the act with his novelty song, “Who is the Lolo Who Stole my Pakalolo?” (A personal favorite is Makaha Sons of Niihau’s homage to smoking joints aptly titled “Pakalolo.”)

Many on the Mainland didn’t see it that way. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act and declared that because cannabis had no medicinal value and could not be used safely, it was a schedule I drug — making it a federal crime to possess the stuff. That law hasn’t changed. Hawaii followed suit.

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, many can recall the militaristic reaction to the flowering of pakalolo culture. Local law enforcement cruised the skies in helicopters, and in some cases worked in tandem with the National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency to conduct aerial surveillance of cannabis and ultimately destroy it. “Operation Green Harvest” was the shorthand phrase for these operations.

Military-like operations to eradicate the drug, draconian criminal laws and the ever-increasing raids on civilians steeped in the usage and economy of cannabis were hallmarks of the 1980s and ’90s. The intrusiveness, the noise and the perceived invasion of privacy caused many to speak out against these aggressive police tactics.

The stigma surrounding pakalolo is waning. Slowly and surely, a movement to decriminalize marijuana has started. At around the start of this century, Hawaii joined a handful of other states in allowing the medicinal use of marijuana. And now, after a long and arduous struggle, the islands are on the brink of a statewide system of dispensaries for patients who qualify for using medical marijuana. It’s continuing to take over the country. More and more states have softened their stance on marijuana.

This week saw more softening. For the first time in our state’s history and perhaps the first time since the overthrow, we saw the lawful transaction of medical cannabis in Hawaii. Perhaps O’Shaughnessy would have been proud.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”