LIGHTEN UP: Hawaii lawmakers may consider easing access to medical marijuana. Photo courtesy of Reason
LIGHTEN UP: Hawaii lawmakers may consider easing access to medical marijuana. Photo courtesy of Reason
LIGHTEN UP: Hawaii lawmakers may consider easing access to medical marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Reason

HONOLULU — Hawaii residents will have a chance to voice their opinion on establishing a statewide system to dispense medical marijuana during a public hearing before the Hawaii Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force.

The final hearing will be held Sept. 24 at 5 pm. at the Hawaii State Capitol Auditorium. A first public hearing was held Wednesday in Hilo on Hawaii Island.

The task force is charged with making recommendations to Hawaii lawmakers and suggesting ways the state can establish a regulated statewide medical marijuana dispensary system by January.

In addition to taking public comment, the task force is expected to review a new, 87-page report recently released by the Legislative Reference Bureau, “Is the grass always greener? An updated look at other state medical marijuana programs.”

The researchers, who reviewed Hawaii’s program and all other medical marijuana programs across the country, studied the challenges faced by the state’s 13,000 medical marijuana users.

“Under federal law, pharmacies are only permitted to dispense medications that have been prescribed. However, since marijuana is classified under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance, physicians are not allowed to write prescriptions for its use.

“Under Hawaii law, a physician does not prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, but merely issues a written certification to a qualifying patient. The law is silent regarding how the qualifying patient is to obtain the marijuana.”

While patients and primary caregivers can grow marijuana, the state does not distribute marijuana seeds or plants, provide a legal way to obtain them, or direct the patient on how to cultivate marijuana, the report noted.

“As a result, there is no place within the State where a person, even a qualifying patient with a valid registry identification certificate, can legally purchase marijuana,” the report said.

The state Department of Public Safety oversees the medical marijuana program, and is in charge of ensuring patients, primary caregivers and treating physicians comply with the law – and are not prosecuted for participating in the program so long as they adhere to the rules and obtain a safety registry identification certificate.

Under a legislation passed in 2013, the responsibility of overseeing Hawaii’s medical marijuana program will be transferred to the Department of Health by January.

Patients are allowed to keep three mature marijuana plants, four immature marijuana plants and an ounce of usable marijuana per each mature plant. But legislation that goes into effect in January will increase the amount of marijuana patients and their caregivers can possess to seven marijuana plants, whether immature or mature, and four ounces of usable marijuana.

Meanwhile, at the legislature, the battle over the future of Hawaii’s medical marijuana laws rages on.

Opponents of medical marijuana maintain the drug is dangerous, addictive, leads to harder drug use, lacks FDA-approval, impairs driving and is unnecessary, while proponents say marijuana is a safe treatment to ease symptoms of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy and chronic pain, among other conditions.

Local activists including the The Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, ACLU of Hawai’i, Fresh Approach Hawaii, Medical Cannabis Coalition of Hawaii and the Libertarian Party of Hawaii want greater access for medical marijuana patients.

Rafael Kennedy, interim executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said the current law does not give sick people the option to buy high quality, laboratory-tested medical marijuana in a safe setting. Instead patients face the choice of growing their own medicine, finding someone they trust who is willing to grow it for them, or buying it illegally on the black market.

“Just after you receive a bad diagnosis is not the right time to take up gardening, and it is a failure of compassion to force the very sick to buy medicine they need on the street,” Kennedy said. “It is also sometimes very difficult for new patients to produce an adequate supply for themselves within the guidelines of the current law. A well-regulated dispensary system can offer patients safe access to higher quality medicine, while at the same time ensuring that cannabis is not diverted to the black market.”

The Honolulu Police Department has lobbied against expanded access to medical marijuana.

“HPD is opposed to the establishment of marijuana dispensaries,” HPD spokesman Teresa Bell said. ” The synthetic form of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is already available in pill form (Marinol) and a spray form (Sativex) is pending FDA approval.  In its smoked form, marijuana potency and dosage cannot be controlled.”

 

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