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The State of Aloha

It must have first arrived to the islands in the 19th century. Perhaps it came over

with the workers and sailors from Mexico or even the Caribbean. Maybe it was brought over from India, the same place Europeans came across it. But we do know that it was available to folks in the Hawaiian Kingdom.

That changed when a cabal of disgruntled white men conspired to overthrow the Hawaiian government under the auspices of an aggressive American diplomat in 1893, and the islands were annexed as a territory to the United States in 1900. The islands were subject to laws made thousands of miles away.

Ten years after annexation, a revolution in Mexico sent waves of migrants to cross the border into the American southwest. They brought with them their preferred recreational substances — the plant known as cannabis sativa. The reaction from white America was swift. Lawmakers vilified as the scourge of the southwest and soon became a crime to use the stuff to get high.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency, was established in 1930. It was led by Harry Anslinger, an ardent racist. He targeted cannabis and publicly denounced the substance as a dangerous drug. Among his misguided beliefs was that it was used by men of color to seduce vulnerable white women. “Reefer,” he once said, makes people of color (and no, he didn’t use those words) “think they’re as good as white men.”

Anslinger crusaded against cannabis until his retirement in 1962. By then, Hawaii had become a state and his public criticism of the dangers of cannabis were ridiculed and disproven by a congressional committee. The hysteria of drug use had died down — at least for a while.

Then came the hippies. Richard Nixon campaigned for president in 1968 on a law-and-order campaign. He won. While in office he declared a war on drugs and ramped up the criminalization of drug possession.

Our local Legislature was in lockstep with federal policy. It created its own schedules of drugs mimicking the national standard. It created its own criminal offenses for the possession, use and distribution of cannabis.

One of Nixon’s chief advisers was John Ehrlichman. He would later explain the truth about the war on drugs in 1994. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” he said.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalize both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The war on drugs nonetheless raged on. Ronald Reagan ramped up police enforcement. Black and Latino communities on the Mainland felt specifically targeted. Bill Clinton got in on the act by signing off on legislation that put drug offenders, who were overwhelmingly people of color, in prison for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.

Hawaii, a hub for pakalolo cultivation, was a frontline in this war. The uptick in cannabis use and cultivation was blamed on the hippies who came to the islands shortly after statehood. Despite its popularity in the counterculture, there was little tolerance for cannabis and its users in the islands.

There was a brief respite from this escalation when President Barack Obama ordered federal prosecutors and authorities to minimize the enforcement of drug laws — particularly cannabis. That’s when voter initiatives in places like Colorado boldly permitted recreational use of cannabis in defiance of federal law. It’s been a success. Other states have followed.

Legislators in Hawaii have repeatedly tried to change the drug laws here. It started with medical cannabis. Then it expanded to dispensaries. But decriminalization has always eluded them. That is, until last year.

We managed to pass — over the vociferous opposition of the police, prosecutors, church groups and some members of the public — a law that decriminalized a meager amount of cannabis.

Saturday is the first day in which a new law will go into effect. Starting Saturday, possession of up to 3 grams — that’s almost 0.10 of an ounce — of cannabis is no longer a crime. It could lead to a fine of $130, but it is not a criminal conviction.

For pot enthusiasts, this modicum of reform is insufficient. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. But getting away from Nixonian paranoia of the ’70s, Reaganite rhetoric of the ’80s, and Clintonian legislation of the ’90s is no easy feat.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”