Images by Lila Lee

“It’s like growing tomatoes,” says Dan Lankford, the owner of Ohana Greenhouse and Garden Supply. At a warehouse in Kalihi, where one of his five storefronts are located, Lankford and his staff sell everything a hobbyist might need for maximum tomato yields, from common items like fertilizer and digital thermometers to things more obscure like silica, organic bat guano, and turkey bags.

But Ohana Greenhouse is one of several ancillary businesses that supports an industry in unregulated existence until 2015 in Hawai‘i: marijuana. “It’s said that if you can grow tomatoes, you can grow cannabis,” Lankford says. “In Hawai‘i, you could have great luck even if you never care for the plant, but if you want continual results, you’ll be led to being more careful, planned, and scientific with your growing.”

In 2000, Hawai‘i was the sixth state to legalize medical marijuana, allowing patients to cultivate marijuana plants to treat a number of qualifying ailments, including cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, and severe and chronic pain. But the statute allowed no way for those with licenses to purchase such medicine; they had to grow their own, no matter how detrimental their health issues or skills as a gardener. In 2015, Hawai‘i resolved this dilemma by passing Act 241, following 25 other states and the District of Columbia in the legalization of medical marijuana dispensaries. In April 2016, after sorting through 66 applications, eight such entities were selected: three on O‘ahu, two on Hawai‘i Island, two on Maui, and one on Kaua‘i, with each entity allowed two locations.These businesses must oversee the entire process of medical marijuana, from cultivation to sale.

“Being a bit late means we can learn from what’s worked and not worked in other places,” says Chris Garth, executive director and chief lobbyist of the Hawaii Dispensary Alliance, a group organized to advocate on behalf of the burgeoning industry. “Of course, one could say this is the same old story, about big business taking over an industry, but we’re saying this is a safe, necessary product for patients, delivered by professionals,” Garth says.

The dispensary industry joins a culture of marijuana cultivation that has been part of local life for decades. Since 2000, the state of Hawai‘i has issued registration cards for the use of medical marijuana. Cardholders are allowed to maintain one grow site with no more than seven marijuana plants, and to possess up to four ounces of marijuana at a time. At the close of 2016, the state had authorized more than 15,000 cards. When dispensaries open their doors beginning in the spring of 2017, these cardholders will be able to purchase from slick new storefronts across the islands.

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Drugs have been prevalent in Hawai‘i since humans populated the islands. ‘Awa was brought by the first Polynesians who settled here, and its roots are the source of a traditional narcotic drink known now as kava. Like cannabis, kava, which is classified as a dietary supplement, is a nervous system depressant most often consumed in a social environment. Both are known to reduce anxiety. Proponents of cannabis equate it to a panacea. The plant was most likely introduced by Mexican vaqueros, later called paniolo, or cowboys, who arrived in 1832 to manage the massive Parker Ranch on Hawai‘i Island. It may also have traveled with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, or Filipino workers who built the 19th-century sugar economy. Hawaiian and Pidgin English speakers called the stuff “pakalolo,” which loosely translates to “numbing tobacco.” (“Paka” means tobacco, and “lōlō” means paralyzed, numb, or crazy.)

The history of Hawai‘i loosely follows its governmental drug laws. The puritanical emphasis on drug enforcement was an impetus for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom when opium—popular with the Chinese laborers—became contentious during the reign of King David Kalākaua. In 1886, Hawai‘i sold licenses for, and thereby gained tax revenue from, the addictive drug. The king allegedly took a bribe from a Chinese national for a license, and a scandal ensued. In an era when white supremacy was intertwined with Christian morality, haole businessmen led by Lorrin Thurston, a grandson of missionaries, objected against the “aggressions, extravagance, and debaucheries of the Kalākaua regime.” Thurston, Sanford Dole, and their acolytes formed the “Hawaiian League,” a secret society that overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom a decade later. What followed was the adoption of American criminal law regarding vice. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively banned its sale and use. Through the territorial and early statehood era, Honolulu, the largest city in the archipelago, followed a policy of containment, in which drug smuggling was kept to Chinatown, later fictionalized in Charlie Chan books and movies.

Everything changed with the baby boomers. In the ’60s and ’70s, young Americans alighted from jets and populated the north shores of Kaua‘i, Maui, O‘ahu, and Hawai‘i Island, bringing American weed culture with them. As common as copies of the Whole Earth Catalog, marijuana was integral to the scene, along with surfing, DIY culture, anti-consumerism, and an aversion to authority. An article in Rolling Stone in 1979 made the unsubstantiated claim that marijuana was Hawai‘i’s No. 1 crop, followed closely by sugar and pineapple. Backyard growers were cultivating strains like Maui Wowie, Kona Gold, Pineapple Express, and Puna Butter, exporting them around the world in an untaxed, illegal trade. Plumes of smoke proliferated during Diamond Head crater music festivals. Pā‘ia on Maui became a haven of the free-love movement. Weed was tolerated by the progressive, multicultural community and trafficked by a syndicate of Polynesian men who operated outside the law and avoided high-profile interactions with the justice system. Don Ho and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole wrote songs extolling pakalolo. In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama’s pre-presidency autobiography, he writes of the elation associated with getting blazed as a Punahou School student in the 1970s: “If the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.”

Cannabis Hawaiʻi

This youthful drug culture was sharply rebuked by the Nixon administration’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Enforcement escalated through the ’80s and ’90s. In the fields and forests of Hawai‘i, beginning in the late ’70s, federal, state, and county law enforcement began Operation Green Harvest, a federally funded state program dedicated to eradicating the illegal growing of marijuana. Law enforcement began using aircraft, primarily helicopters, to identify and eradicate groves of marijuana growing on public and private land. Such raids became weed-world infamous, like the operations performed in the back of Moanalua Valley and the noisy raids conducted around the green belt above Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island that resulted in the confiscation of literal tons of plants and equipment.

Throughout the United States from the ’70s to the present, an exorbitant budget has been distributed for contracts for equipment, training, and administration of such programs via state funds and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. At times, such raids have violated the Constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Property has been damaged in zealous, poorly conceived militarization of local police. Police raids and enhanced prosecutions upended lives, the weight of which was inequitably felt by the poor. Proponents of the decriminalization of cannabis argue that the war on drugs had the unintentional effect of promoting hard drugs—particularly crack cocaine and methamphetamine—by forcing marijuana into illegality, categorizing it at the same level of drug, and punishable with the same jail sentences. Despite the legalization of medical marijuana in Hawai‘i in 2000, DEA funding for raids is still available to county police departments, who have used Coast Guard helicopters or rented commercial ones for $650 an hour. In 2015, the DEA reportedly eradicated 109 outdoor grow sites and confiscated 15,852 plants in Hawai‘i alone.

In 2007, Hawai‘i County residents banded together to object to the state’s continued raids. Aggravated by the helicopter intrusions, voters organized and passed the Peaceful Sky ordinance, which made the personal cultivation (24 or fewer plants) of marijuana by persons 21 and older the lowest police enforcement priority; it also reduced the sentence for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana to a petty misdemeanor without the weight of a jail sentence. The supremacy of federal and state law, however, meant that the county ordinance held no legal weight—it was essentially a suggestion.

Cannabis Hawaiʻi

In August 2013, U.S. Attorney General James Cole published a four-page memorandum addressed to all U.S. attorneys who prosecute federal drug laws, writing, “In jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form … conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities.” The Cole memo was followed shortly in 2014 with a provision, tucked into a $1.1 trillion spending law signed by President Obama, that prohibits federal authorities from raiding dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal.

By 2015, Hawai‘i dispensary advocates had an opening. In addition to a growing body of medical studies and changing culture, advocates proffered the relatively benign effects of marijuana as an alternative to opiates and other “hard” drugs. The pyrrhic fact of the American drug war is that it failed. Opiate usage is on the rise, and painkillers are prescribed and resold on the black market. The drug war’s effect in Hawai‘i, which Native Hawaiians bore the brunt of, was not dissimilar to the impact of crack cocaine and its criminalization on African American communities.

Many involved in the reclassification of marijuana nationally are baby-boomers, who will need legal pain medication as elderly citizens. A 2015 CNN special hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta titled “Weed” extolled the medicinal benefits of cannabis for an hour. “I was wrong,” and “systematically misled” on the information regarding marijuana, Gupta said. Science has followed. Studies note that marijuana is far less destructive or addictive than alcohol, and cannot cause death by overdose. More than 60 international health organizations support a patient’s right to marijuana access. The now-legal and increasingly corporate sector of marijuana production is focusing on catering to seniors.

In August 2016, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that the Department of Justice can no longer spend money to prosecute users who obey their state’s medical marijuana laws. Police reports often include the phrase “the smell of marijuana” as a pretense for stopping an individual for suspicion of committing a crime. It is now legal to smell like you just got blazed, with a card from the Department of Health, as long as you are not operating a vehicle or heavy machinery.

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“Most of us grew up here, including myself. That’s why we chose this name,” says Teri Freitas Gorman, the director of community relations and patient affairs at Maui Grown Therapies, one of the two dispensaries licensed to operate on Maui. The dispensary’s permanent home is still under construction in a new Wailuku development, which had been a fallow tract of former agricultural land. Its grow site upcountry has been built and stocked. When the dispensary is operational, cardholders will be able to walk in, shop, and leave with up to 4 ounces of legal marijuana every 15 days. At the company’s temporary office near the Kahului Airport, I am shown a presentation that has been made to different organizations across the state, including police departments, parent-teacher associations, and Rotary clubs. On the board of Maui Grown Therapies is a former Maui Land and Pineapple CEO, a practicing oncologist, a practicing pediatrician, and a beloved doctor who was a guest on Oprah.

“The state has highly regulated everything we can and cannot do,” Gorman explains. “That’s why our website is so spare, and I can only disclose so much about our operation.” Plants must be grown indoors (though an opaque roof is allowed), a beefy security system must be in place, and when and where patients interact with the product on-site is highly regulated. Any part of the plant can be used. In addition to marijuana for smoking, dispensaries are allowed to sell lotions, salves, transdermal patches, lozenges, aerosols, and oils. Edibles are not yet legal.

Cannabis Hawaiʻi

When asked where the seeds from plants will come from, Gorman responds, “God. The law is silent on that, so we must be as well.” From planting, it takes approximately six months to harvest marijuana in Hawai‘i, shorter than it would in colder climes. Vendors must track cannabis “from seed to sale,” which means that the businesses must tag and monitor each plant. It took nearly a year for the state to find a company that can handle this task, finalizing a contract with BioTrackTHC in November 2016. This Florida company’s software tracks each plant from its seed to harvest to destruction. This is not how agriculture usually works—it’s not as if the government makes tomato growers track a whole field of individual little sprouts—but it allows the state to maintain accountability, and limit diversion into and from the black market.

But logistics are not the issue for those to whom Gorman has been presenting her PowerPoint. “The PTA and police were mainly concerned about how this would affect the way marijuana is viewed by kids,” Gorman says. Their concern, valid in the context of considering marijuana a “gateway drug,” seems at odds with the reality of daily life on the Valley Isle. Willie Nelson, who has a line of weed that is distributed in Oregon and Colorado under the name “Willie’s Reserve,” runs a popular restaurant in Pā‘ia. “Finally the Herbs Come Around” by Collie Buddz has been at the top of beach-party playlists from 2007 to the present. Head shops selling bongs and glass pipes abound. The island’s Ohana Greenhouse does brisk business. Kids call the Maui Police Department “Babylon,” the way Rastafarians refer to oppressive, materialist states. Dispensaries, through extreme vetting and legislation, are beginning to align law with culture.

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I’m ascending a rain-slicked slope in an East Maui valley in the bed of a pickup truck, past several untended plots of land, a world away from urban rooms where marijuana policy is being debated and temperature-controlled warehouses where medicinal marijuana will soon be sold. It’s difficult not to be overcome by the scene: A tradewind breeze sweeps along a carpet of iridescence and through rustling koa trees and tī leaf stands; a brook flows down a wooded mountain and into a terraced lo‘i kalo, or taro farm, before exiting at the bottom of the property. Banana and papaya grow in cultivated stands along the perimeter of the lo‘i. Nearby, under an opaque corrugated roof, a dozen potted female cannabis plants sway head-high in the wind. With pruning shears and deft hands, my host trims unmistakable symmetrically bladed leaves from a dense calyx, the plant’s reproductive whorl of a yet-unfurled flower. Pistils flare off the bud in tangerine and ochre, bound with sticky trichomes in a tight bloom of potential energy, waiting to explode into kinetic biological reproduction. This is a marijuana cover model, something off a head-shop poster.

These plants are legal. According to the 2000 state law, medical marijuana cardholders are allowed to task others with growing their seven plants for them. “The law doesn’t say how many plants we can grow on a single property,” explains Nohea*, a Maui native who has been harvesting organic marijuana for several cardholders for the last few years. “We are careful to make sure each plant is tagged.” In keeping with the law, such growers carefully manage the number of plants associated with a patient’s card, and its date of planting.

Cannabis Hawaiʻi

“Marijuana is just a part of what we do as farmers, as people who are trying to live off the land,” Nohea says. “We have some of the best natural resources on the planet. It’s still possible to live off the land here. There are plenty of people who refuse to be part of the system.”

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Most of Hawai‘i’s strains of marijuana have become exceedingly hearty and potent. Organic farming methods bring lower yields and mellower highs, using growing materials that smokers are comfortable with. “Our parents and their friends have been smoking weed most of their lives,” Nohea says. “They know what it does and doesn’t do.”

On Maui, as elsewhere in the United States, the quasi-legal marijuana industry is regulated by quasi-legal security and pricing systems. The next state legislation passed could ban private cultivation of cannabis. The federal policy regarding marijuana enforcement could again change with the appointment of an attorney general with a differing ideology. “Every time you hear a helicopter, you freak a little. But the best security is not being greedy,” she says. “Grow a lot of plants, and you’re just asking to get jacked or raided. This is not about profit. If you’re trying to get rich off of marijuana, then I doubt you’re doing it right.”

For Nohea, the new medical marijuana companies in Hawai‘i are an unknown factor for her business. “We are scared that the dispensaries, with all their cash, will say that this is illegal,” Nohea says. “I hope they don’t see us as a competitor, or a threat.” The concern is warranted. Powerful economic interests are at play in an emerging market, with uncertain outcomes. “‘Āina-based care—it’s got to be possible,” she says. We survey the scene as we chat. A pit bull puppy, a sorry excuse for a guard dog, lounges under a plastic awning, leaning against a potted plant, the carefully cultivated descendant of plants brought to Hawai‘i centuries earlier.

*Name changed