There is “no one model” to follow in establishing medical marijuana dispensaries, a state task force was told Tuesday.
The task force, which is examining Hawaii’s medical marijuana program, discussed a new report comparing programs in other states.
Among the takeaways from the Legislative Reference Bureau’s briefing at the Hawaii State Capitol was that none of the 22 other states that permit use of marijuana for medical purposes has all the answers to Hawaii’s questions, including how to set up dispensaries — something Hawaii has not yet done even though medical marijuana has been legal here for 14 years.
As Lance Ching, the report’s research attorney, explained, some of the programs are relatively new and they vary on regulation, security, training, taxation, labeling and quality control.
New Mexico may be a useful model, said task force member Peter Whiticar of the Department of Health, because the state shares similar population sizes and demographics.
But there are still many hurdles to be cleared for a dispensary system to be established here. In addition to legislators, health officials, doctors, caregivers and educators, the task force is also compromised of law enforcement officials.
As Civil Beat reported Tuesday, county police departments and prosecuting attorneys have been among the most fierce critics of Hawaii’s medical marijuana program — in no small part because pot remains illegal at the federal level and recreational use is illegal at the state level.
Task force member Ted Sakai, the director of the state Department of Public Safety, said law enforcement’s concerns center on two “clusters” — access in terms of who can obtain the drug, and security of facilities that house it.
Sakai, who administers the state’s prison system, said large amounts of cash and pot would be “a magnet” for potential criminal activity.
Other concerns include whether patients who grow their own but also access dispensaries might exceed their allocated supply, how food or other products (“edibles” and “topicals”) containing marijuana’s active ingredients are manufactured and regulated, how to monitor sales in a business with mostly cash transactions rather than credit card sales, the potential for price gouging and whether unannounced audits and inspections would be required.
Alan Shinn of the Coalition for a Drug Free Hawaii said he wants policies to ensure that youths would not have access to medical marijuana. Shinn, a task force member, said states that allow medical marijuana have higher use of recreational pot, and that there are reports that one-fourth of youths got their pot by using someone’s medical marijuana card.
Sakai agreed that law enforcement fears greater drug abuse and addiction. But he also said he was pleased to learn that other states are taking appropriate security measures.
Saiki said that, if it’s done well here, law enforcement might actually benefit from a dispensary system because current law has allowed for a “huge gap” in terms of how patients get their supply.
(Come Jan. 1, administration of Hawaii’s medical marijuana program will transfer from Public Safety to the Department of Health, the customary agency in most states.)
The task force will use the LRB’s medical marijuana report to help it make recommendations to the Hawaii Legislature, likely regarding establishing a dispensary system so that qualified patients can safely and readily obtain their medicine. Meanwhile, task force subcommittees will look into other issues.
Whiticar of the Health Department, who participated in a recent conference call with government counterparts in New Mexico, said that state may serve as a useful model for Hawaii.
It has roughly the same population as Hawaii and about the same number of qualifying medical pot patients (Hawaii has about 13,000), and it has both a major urban center and many people living in rural communities. New Mexico is also one of the 18 states that have dispensaries for medical marijuana.
Whiticar said he was impressed with how New Mexico’s program had grown and evolved, saying Hawaii should recognize that setting up dispensaries here will require continued work and commitment. He said there is a “very big step” between allowing dispensaries and actually implementing a system.
Whiticar advised that Hawaii would need a separate program and qualified staffing, one that has public health concerns “built into” the program. Hawaii might also emulate New Mexico’s extensive use of epidemiological data to monitor its program and to track who has access to medical cannabis, he said.
Dan Gluck, an attorney with the ACLU of Hawaii, is part of a subcommittee looking into fees and taxes.
Among the ideas bandied about are to stick with a simple formula when applying the general excise tax to sales: .5 percent for wholesale and 4 percent for retail (except on Oahu, where it is 4.5 percent to help pay for rail).
Dispensary licensing fees, which range from small amounts to as high as $75,000 in Connecticut, might settle in the $30,000 to $50,000 range locally. Gluck said that figure should not prove a burden to groups that demonstrate the financial wherewithal to go into the medical pot business.
Ching of the LRB said it is likely that federal officials will defer to local law agencies when it comes to regulatory enforcement. The U.S. Treasury Department has offered guidelines on banking and credit. And the U.S. Congress is beginning to at least hear proposals to give state’s more authority in medical marijuana.
A public hearing on the LRB report and dispensaries is set for Wednesday evening at Aupuni Center in Hilo. A second hearing will be held Sept. 24 at the Capitol.
The hearings could be rather vocal affairs and not necessarily germane, based on the brief public comment period Tuesday.
At least two people spoke passionately and at length about, among other things, how they could not get their medical pot cards renewed and how Hawaii should focus on legalizing marijuana for commercial purposes because it grows the best in the world and it sells for $300 to $400 an ounce.
Medical marijuana is prescribed for “debilitating medical conditions” including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, wasting syndrome, severe pain and nausea, seizures, muscle spasms and multiple sclerosis.
Medical marijuana permits for patients and physicians can also be revoked should they be abused. Saiki defended Public Safety’s record on issuing permits and said the department’s records indicate that applications are issued within seven to 10 days of being submitted.