Editor’s Note: The ACLU of Hawaii Foundation will co-sponsor two events this weekend to mark the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs.” Clifton Otto will be speaking at the conference.

On June 14, 2000, Hawaii became the first state in the Union to create a Medical Cannabis Program (MCP) via the legislative process.

When Governor Cayetano signed SB 862 into law on that day eleven years ago, he, and the State of Hawai’i, effectively told our Federal Government that we do not care what they think about Medical Cannabis; that we are giving this botanical medicine back to the patients who need it, whether they like it or not. This was a bold move at a time when only a handful of other states had enacted similar programs, and the War on Drugs was raging on unabashed.

Unfortunately, good intentions do not always guarantee successful results. This was especially true in the case of Hawai’i’s MCP, where its founding fathers and mothers neglected to give patients legal access to their state-approved medicine, and placed its care in the hands of a state agency that has a direct conflict of interest with protecting the rights of patients who are being allowed to utilize a Schedule I controlled substance.

What was also left out of the original legislation was any means for Medical Cannabis research to be carried out at the state level. Such research is an essential part of any state-approved MCP, since this is the only way for patients to learn which strain of Cannabis contains the unique fingerprint of chemicals that is best for their condition, what the potency is of their medicine so that it can be properly dosed, and if there are any contaminants that could put them at risk for additional health problems.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) will tell you that there already exists a mechanism for conducting research with controlled substances in Hawai’i. And indeed, buried within Hawaii’s Revised Statues, Chapter 329, Part V, Section 58, there is a two sentence provision that places this authority squarely with the DPS. What is not so apparent though is that this applies only to research being conducted with Industrial Hemp, not Medical Cannabis.

If you wanted to initiate a research project involving Hemp, you would first have to build the facility that would house the plants, including a ten foot high chain link fence topped with barbed wire, along with the necessary security and surveillance equipment, which would then have to be inspected by the DPS before your application would even be considered.

Even then, if you made it through the DPS hoops, your application would still have to be reviewed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which would inevitably mean years of delays and eventual rejection. And, if you wanted to conduct research using Medical Cannabis in Hawai’i, you’re out of luck.

The DPS does not accommodate such requests, since the DEA maintains strict control over anything involving Cannabis Research. This includes a monopoly on the production of Research Cannabis through a single contract with the School of Pharmacy at the University of Mississippi, and a review process involving the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that is biased towards approving only those protocols that are designed to show the negative effects of Cannabis.

Add on top of this the outdated Randomized Clinical Trials (RCT) methodology that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insists is the only way of proving the efficacy of a medication, within a system that was designed to favor the pharmaceutical development of a single therapeutic agent, and you have the perfect storm for insuring that Medical Cannabis Research can never be performed at the local level.

But why should we care what the FDA and the DEA thinks about doing research with Medical Cannabis? We didn’t care what they thought when Hawai’i’s MCP was created. Why should this be stopping us now?

The fact is that Cannabis is a Common Wealth Botanical Medicine. It already belongs to the people who need it. The State of Hawai’i recognized that Cannabis has a place in our community as a botanical medicine when it created Hawai’i’s MCP.

Patients are not using material from the University of Mississippi. They are using locally available strains of Cannabis that have been selected for sustainability in Hawai’i’s climate and contain a unique spectrum of therapeutic chemicals that nobody has yet to investigate under controlled research conditions. And of these naturally occurring chemicals, THC, the psychoactive chemical that produces the “high” that recreational users prefer, is one of the least interesting of the active ingredients in Cannabis.

Others, such as Cannabidiol, with its proven anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties, have the potential to fulfill Cannabis’ legacy as a locally available, widely therapeutic botanical medicine that can reduce our dependence on big pharmaceutical companies that care for nothing other than their annual fiscal reports.

We have the chance to do it right in Hawaii, by extending the state-sanctioned protection of Medical Cannabis to those professionals and well qualified scientists who are committed to keeping such research centered on the best interests of Hawai’i’s patients.


About the author: Clifton Otto is a retina specialist here on Oahu, at the Retina Institute of Hawaii, where he supervises several ongoing national studies dealing with macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. He also worked as a natural products chemist at the University of Hawaii, and as a reference standard chemist at Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals before attending medical school in New York.