A Senate-House conference committee approved a bill Monday to establish a medical marijuana dispensary system, to the delight of advocates who thought the measure was a lost cause Friday night.

House Bill 321 now goes to the full House and Senate to be voted on before the legislative session ends Thursday. If it passes the Legislature, it will head to the governor’s desk.

The final version of the measure would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to be operating by July 15, 2016.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim embraces Representative Della Au Belatti after both houses agreed on committee meeting. 4 may 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim embraces Rep. Della Au Belatti after a conference committee approves a bill to establish medical marijuana dispensaries.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bill allows for eight dispensary licenses, including three on Oahu; two on the Big Island; two in Maui County; and one on Kauai. Each licensee could have up to two retail locations and would also have to grow its own marijuana.

Hawaii will start accepting licensee applications Jan. 11, 2016. The application window will close Jan. 29, after which the Department of Health will evaluate the applications. Licensees will be announced on April 15.

A draft of the bill wasn’t immediately available Monday afternoon and is expected to be posted online by 5 p.m.

The bill’s passage Monday was met with a round of applause by advocates who packed a Senate conference room. Many lawmakers were also happy, including House Speaker Joseph Souki, who has been lobbying for medical marijuana dispensaries for the past two years.

“It is long overdue, but it is the humanitarian thing to do; it is the right thing to do,” Souki said in a press release.

But it almost didn’t happen. The measure had apparently died Friday after the chief negotiators, Sen. Josh Green and Rep. Della Au Belatti, couldn’t reach an agreement in the final hour of conference committee deliberations.

In an unusual move, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and House Souki decided to reconsider the measure after 16 senators signed a petition expressing support for the final House draft of the bill.

Green was removed from the committee and was replaced as chief Senate negotiator by Sen. Will Espero. Sen. Les Ihara was added to the panel.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii for 15 years, but patients have never had a place to legally buy it if they can’t or don’t want to grow their own.

This is a developing story. Check Civil Beat later for a full recap.

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