Q&A: Hawaiian State Senator Mike Gabbard, Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Environment
“Hemp hemp hooray!”
So began the keynote speech by Hawaiian State Senator Mike Gabbard at the 2ndAnnual Maui Cannabis Conference on January 5, as he acknowledged the “kindred cannabis enthusiasts and hempsters” in the enthusiastic audience.
Gabbard (D-HI Senate District 20), named an "honorary hempster" by the Maui Hemp Institute for Research and Sustainability in 2016, had his own story to tell about Hawaii, the first state since World War II to be allowed by the DEA to plant hemp.
Action on hemp – and cannabis – has been slow and steady in Hawaii.
In 1999, legislation championed by Hawaiian State Representative Cynthia Thielen was passed for a three-year pilot test program for hemp at the Alterna Hemp Research Project’s quarter-acre agricultural plot in Oahu, financed with $200,000 from Alterna (Alterna is a hemp shampoo maker) and marking the historical planting of hemp seeds.
Hawaiian Governor Benjamin Cayetano declared December 14, 1999 “Hawaii Industrial Hemp Day.”
On July 7, 2016, the state established a five-year industrial hemp pilot program for farmers in the state, allowing cultivation of industrial hemp for research, which also included commercial sale of hemp for marketing and industry development – a critical addition to the program. Rules for the program were approved in September, 2017.
On April 18, 2018, the pilot program began accepting license applications, and in June, began issuing licenses for the program.
I caught up with Senator Gabbard, who was wearing a hemp shirt, under a tent overlooking a slice of Maui paradise after his presentation at the conference.
American Cannabis Report: Tell us about the role of Hawaii in hemp and cannabis legalization efforts.
Senator Mike Gabbard: Let me tell you about the Hawaiian scorecard. Since 1999, there have been 47 pieces of legislation introduced. And in 19 years now, look where we are today. The potential is enormously fantastic. Now there are ten licensed hemp farmers. As of December 20, there are 58 active trade names listed in Hawaiian State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.There were 23,000 acres of hemp cultivated in Hawaii last year. In 2018, that swelled to 77,000 acres.
ACR: What will you do now that the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, which includes carefully crafted clauses about hemp and CBD?
MG: The next legislative session begins January 16, and I am working with the Department of Agriculture on a bill for 2019 that will align our pilot hemp program with the 2018 Farm Bill. One of the changes we will probably make is to allow an interim rule-making authority like the Department of Health has for the medical cannabis program. That will allow us to be limber in terms of changes and regulations happening at the federal level. I will meet with the department next week to iron out the specifics of that bill.
ACR: As these regulations get created and rolled out, will you be looking at other states as models for legalization?
MG: We’ve been to Kentucky before and met with some of the farmers and legislators there. So yes, we don’t believe in starting from scratch. We want to look at the pluses and minuses of other states, and the mistakes made as well as the good things that have happened. So absolutely.
ACR: Will the legalization of hemp create more dialogue around the legalization of cannabis?
MG: Yes. There is a Hemp Farmers Association and there are people working in processing here, and I think the shift over to cannabis will be the same kind of thing. There have been 19 bills introduced to legalize recreational use of cannabis since 1933 in Hawaii. Of those, four were introduced in 2018, and none got through. One introduced in 2013 got a hearing but it’s gone nowhere. We need constituents to come and testify in person. Tell your story about how cannabis impacts your life and the life of others. In Hawaii, we call it “talking story.” It could be a very informal thing. We need to have that conversation where we get to hear from people why it’s a good idea, or why they think it’s a horrible idea. Then you weigh that information and vote on it. This coming legislative session, we will start the conversation and see where it goes from there. But I have had some people who, when you just you bring it up hemp or cannabis, they are so set in their ways they refuse to be open to it.
ACR: There are still some unknowns about what hemp is, what levels of CBD are the right levels, and confusion about where the FDA and DEA stand on the commercial sale and interstate transportation of legalized hemp. Testimony from Jerry Inouye, a major with the Honolulu narcotics/vice division, complained that officers in the field would need to have specialized training and lab equipment to be able to tell the difference between hemp and cannabis.
MG: That is why, with the bill I am working on with the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture, we will address some of these issues. It will just make it easier for them if they got this interim administration making rules as these things roll out from the federal government. This coming legislative session, we will have some bills introduced and start the conversation and see where it goes from there.
ACR: Do you have conversations with your daughter (U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard [D-HI 2ndDistrict]) about either hemp or cannabis?
MG: It is a wonderful relationship that we have, with her at the federal level. She has been working on hemp for years, and now on cannabis. She has kind of educated me more about legalizing cannabis. I was waiting in the wings to see what would happen in Colorado and other states that have legalized it, and I think the pluses outweigh the minuses in a very big way.
ACR: Are you going to run for re-election in 2020?
MG: I got elected to the Hawaiian State Senate in 2006 and my term is up in 2020. But as long as I am having fun in 2020, I will run again. [In Hawaii] there are 25 Senate districts and in each district, there are about 56,000 people represented by each senator. My daughter Tulsi talks a lot about how people come here and see the beautiful mountains and all of the other natural beauty, and invariably there is something kinda intangible about Hawaii. That intangible quality has given us all a mutual respect and a love of the island... of taking care of it.
Editor's Note: Immediately after this interview was turned in, Senator Gabbard's daughter, Tulsi, announced on CNN that she would be running for President in 2020.
Award-Winning Journalist David Hodes is the Washington Correspondent of
The American Cannabis Report. Keep an eye on this news source for breaking news from our nation's capital as it wrestles with ending Prohibition.