The state Health Department says it has reduced how long it takes to process patients’ applications for medical marijuana from up to eight weeks to no more than five business days.

House Rep. Della Au Belatti said the department’s improved efficiency is the main reason why she agreed to kill a bill Wednesday that would have forced the agency to give patients temporary registration certificates that allow them to grow marijuana while they wait for their cards.

That was a common practice when the medical marijuana program was run by the Department of Public Safety, but the state Department of Health and Attorney General Doug Chin have opposed the idea. The program was transferred from Public Safety to Health last year.

Belatti and House Rep. Karl Rhoads deferred House Bill 2709 Wednesday in a joint hearing of the Health and Judiciary committees. A similar measure, Senate Bill 2177, died in the Senate earlier this month.

Marijuana hearing Rep Della Au Belatti, chair. 28 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Della Au Belatti at a medical marijuana hearing last December.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Last fall, the agency had a backlog of 1,500 applications, sparking the ire of some lawmakers. That has now shrunk to about 250.

That includes about 150 applications yet to be reviewed. Another 100 applications are missing key information and must be returned to patients.

Scottina Ruis, medical marijuana registry program coordinator, said the agency was able to reduce the backlog by working overtime and implementing a new online registration process.

But Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said that while he’s happy the wait time has improved, he’s concerned that the backlog will grow after dispensaries open later this year.

Hawaii has allowed patients to grow their own medical cannabis since 2000, but the state’s new medical marijuana dispensary law permits production centers and stores to come online in July.

A large increase in applications is expected based on what’s happened in other states that have legalized dispensaries. Hawaii also recently added post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for a medical cannabis card.

“It’s short-sighted to just nix this now because of the current situation,” he said of HB 2709. “It wasn’t that long ago there was a wait. What’s to say there wouldn’t be another one in the future?”

Ruis said the medical cannabis registry program only has four staff members and acknowledged that the backlog could increase again if there’s big spike in applications.

The agency also doesn’t have the resources to support all of the patients who may need help navigating the new online system.

While the department provides a tip sheet for navigating the website, answers calls on weekday afternoons and encourages people to email questions, that’s not enough help for some patients.

“If your challenges is that you don’t know anything about the Internet then it’s hard for me to coach you through it because I need to get you on the Internet first,” Ruis said. Some 44 percent of the state’s 13,000 medical marijuana patients are over the age of 55.

“We’re counting on physicians to help or even family members and caregivers,” she said. “We just don’t have enough staff … to guide people through the application process.”

But the Health Department hasn’t requested any additional staff this year for the registry program, Ruis said. The department is expected to hire another full-time staff member starting next January, but that person will only work for half the year and won’t be there this summer when dispensaries are allowed to open and the demand for cards will likely increase.

And while the Health Department has touted its progress in improving the registry backlog, Bergquist said he doesn’t think currently registered patients should have to wait three to five business days to renew their cards. New patients may also have medical reasons for needing cannabis right away, he said.

“People don’t wait for their medicine for normally more than 30 minutes at the pharmacy,” Bergquist said.

 

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