With only two days left to come to a decision, House and Senate lawmakers remain at odds over key aspects of legislation to establish medical marijuana dispensaries in the Aloha State 15 years after medi-pot was legalized here.

Sen. Josh Green and Rep. Della Au Belatti lead the Senate and House conference committees that are negotiating on House Bill 321. And despite months of work on the legislation, they disagree significantly on what the dispensary system should look like.

That’s got dispensary advocates worried, and House and Senate leaders working behind closed doors to convince the chairs to hammer out a deal.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and House Majority Leader Scott Saiki chat during a hearing on medical marijuana dispensaries. 29 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim whispers to House Majority Leader Scott Saiki during a hearing on medical marijuana dispensaries. The legislative leaders have been getting involved in negotiations for House Bill 321, which could fail if Sen. Josh Green and Rep. Della Au Belatti don’t reach agreement by Friday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Green envisions a system with only one licensee per county that would own all the dispensaries and marijuana farms. The physician from the Big Island thinks the best way to ensure the system is safe is to require that dispensary owners be licensed health care professionals who own at least a fourth of a company that has $2 million in the bank.

Belatti calls that “supporting Big Marijuana” and favoring the health care industry over other applicants. The attorney representing urban Honolulu wants to allow more licensees per island in order to avoid a monopoly on sales and ensure there’s a steady supply.

Under her version of the bill, the number of licensees for dispensaries would start at six and increase over time. Applicants would be required to prove they have at least $1 million at their disposal, and dispensaries and production centers could have separate owners.

Belatti warned that even though she has long wanted to establish a dispensary system, it’s not guaranteed to happen this year.

That’s an approach that could invite organized crime into the picture, said Green, who contended Belatti was not adequately addressing the concerns of law enforcement officials, many of whom have long opposed the idea of allowing any dispensaries.

During a hearing Wednesday, Belatti and Green sparred about who worked harder on the bill and incorporated more public testimony.

Belatti said Green had largely ignored the draft of the bill she submitted Tuesday and emphasized that her proposal is more in line with the recommendations of a state task force.

Green reiterated that his model incorporates public safety concerns and appeared frustrated by Belatti’s refusal to alter her position.

The frustration is mutual. After a hearing Tuesday, Belatti warned that even though she has long wanted to establish a dispensary system, it’s not guaranteed to happen this year.

“If there’s no real sense of really and truly compromising on the language that was supported by the vast majority of people in the community that worked on this, we may not have a bill,” she told Civil Beat. “Time is running out.”

Favoring Health Care Industry?

Belatti and Green agree on phasing out the existing caregiver system and ensuring that the medical marijuana dispensaries are owned in part by local residents. But they still have major differences, such as how much the product should be taxed — Green wants no tax, while Belatti wants a 2.5 percent tax on gross revenue. They also differ on how long it should take to get the dispensaries up and running.

Belatti disagrees with Green’s faster timeline, as well as his preference for choosing a licensee based on whoever applies first. Under Green’s plan, the applicant would have to meet several requirements, including being a licensed health care provider such as a doctor or a registered nurse.

“This is not something that should be cornered by one particular industry,” Belatti said during Wednesday’s hearing, calling Green’s applicant criteria “disconcerting.”

Green replied that the requirements are intended to prevent organized crime from taking over Hawaii’s medical marijuana industry.

Senator Josh Green speaks to Rep. Della Belatti Au during joint committee hearing on marijuana. 29 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Josh Green argues for the Senate version of the bill during Wednesday’s hearing.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The senator took heat from critics earlier this session who complained he favors the health care industry, which is responsible for a significant amount of his campaign donations.

But Green said after the hearing that the idea for requiring the licensee to be a health care provider came from the Department of Public Safety, not him.

“I don’t understand why anyone would want that program unless they just want to spread marijuana around.” — Sen. Josh Green

He said the definition of health care professional within the bill is broad and includes 41,000 people in Hawaii. While some companies like Pacific Eclipse have expressed support for the bill, Green said he hasn’t been discussing the measure with any interested businesses.

The senator acknowledged that his version differs from the task force recommendation, but he said that’s because that report was a template that didn’t do enough to incorporate the concerns of law enforcement.

“I don’t understand why anyone would want that program unless they just want to spread marijuana around,” he said of the House version.

He maintains that his version of HB 321 does the most to get patients their medicine safely and immediately by including interim rules rather than giving the state Department of Health several months to come up with them.

“This is meant to be the safest program that can possibly get running,” he said.

Concerns From Advocates

Medical marijuana was approved in 2000, but unlike most other states that have taken this action, Hawaii has never provided a means for patients to legally obtain their medicine unless they can grow their own or find a caretaker to cultivate it for them.

There’s been a growing consensus in the Legislature that this is the year that a dispensary system would finally be established. A recent Civil Beat poll found that most voters are in favor of such a bill.

But that won’t happen if Green and Belatti can’t compromise. Committee chairs in the Hawaii Legislature have the power to easily kill bills, particularly during conference committee.

Rep Della Au Belatti listens to Senator Josh Green during joint committee meeting about marijuana. 29 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Della Au Belatti listens to Sen. Josh Green during a conference committee hearing about a bill that would establish medical marijuana dispensaries.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Given the looming deadline, House and Senate leaders have been working behind the scenes to ensure that some form of the bill gets passed.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki met with Green privately Wednesday morning to discuss the bill, and later told Civil Beat he thinks there’s ample time left to come up with a compromise.

“I don’t believe the differences are insurmountable,” Saiki said.

Both he and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim attended Wednesday’s hearing, watching the fireworks from the sidelines in the packed conference room.

But while the political drama was entertaining for some observers in what has largely been a calm legislative session, it’s worrisome for advocates who have been waiting 15 years for the establishment of a legal way to obtain the medicine.

“I don’t believe the differences are insurmountable.” — Scott Saiki, House majority leader

Scott Foster, 72, has been advocating for medical marijuana since his wife died of cancer in 1996. In her last months, marijuana was the only drug that helped ease her nausea, increase her appetite and calm her down when the pain became too great.

“There were times when I’d have to take her screaming to the hospital to get her pain managed,” said Foster, who runs a consumer advocacy group. “The marijuana kind of made everything fine in her mind.”

Nearly 20 years later, Foster is pleased to see the Legislature finally come close to establishing marijuana dispensaries.

“But the devil is always in the details,” he said.

About the Author