Fifteen years after medical marijuana was legalized in Hawaii, legislators considered a bill Saturday that would finally give patients the ability to legally obtain it even if they can’t grow it themselves.

There’s still plenty of opposition to taking that step, even though most of the people who spoke at a hearing before the House committees on health and the judiciary supported HB 321.

The bill would establish medical marijuana dispensaries and productions centers across the state.

Hawaii was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 2000. But unlike most states that have taken that step, Hawaii never passed legislation to help patients access their prescriptions, partly due to opposition from law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office.

6-year-old Maile Kaneshiro sits as mom Jari Sugano as she testifies in support of House BIll 321.  7 feb 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Six-year-old Maile Kaneshiro listens as her mother, Jari Sugano, testifies in favor of a bill to establish medical marijuana dispensaries. Sugano said marijuana is effective in treating her daughter, who suffers severe seizures.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A handful of proposed bills would establish medical marijuana dispensaries, and clarify who can be prescribed medical marijuana. No final action was taken on any of them Saturday, but legislators from both committees plan to vote on HB 321 on Tuesday.

“Patients have been waiting a very long time for a safe and legal way to access their medicine,” Rafael Kennedy, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said while testifying in favor of HB 321. “(This bill is) the closest we’ve ever come to seeing a system that will actually work.”

Many of the legislators sympathized with individuals who pleaded for the dispensary system at the hearing.

But opposition — some of it still questioning whether medical marijuana should be allowed at all — came from law enforcement, the Honolulu prosecutor’s office, anti-drug advocates, churches and a few concerned mothers.

Legislators, opponents and proponents gather to testify regarding House BIll 321.  7 feb 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Legislators, opponents and proponents gather Saturday to discuss House Bill 321 regarding medical marijuana dispensaries.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Alan Shinn, from the Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii, said the bill promoted commercialization of marijuana. He also said he doubted that marijuana should be used as medicine in the first place — in essence challenging the law passed in 2000.

“There’s a lot of questions about it,” Shinn said.

‘The New Face of Cannabis Users’

Jari Sugano, who testified with 6-year-old daughter Maile Kaneshiro at her side, strongly disagrees.

Maile suffers from severe seizures, her mother said, and marijuana is one of the only medications that has helped her.

Sugano said that they’ve tried dozens of prescription medications that haven’t helped her daughter’s potentially fatal condition. She pleaded for passage of the bill that she said would allow her daughter and other suffering children safe and legal access to the medicine.

“(Maile) is the new face of cannabis users in Hawaii,” Sugano said. “It is time that we treat cannabis patients with respect and dignity.”

Rep. Cynthia Thielen was especially moved by the mother’s testimony.

“That just seems almost heartless that we are leaving her without the medicine that she needs,” Thielen said. She recommended that HB 321 be amended so that medical marijuana dispensaries could be established sooner than 2017, as currently stated in the bill.

Nearly half of U.S. states allow some form of medical marijuana, advocates said. Many people testified about how it had helped loved ones or themselves to cope with debilitating illnesses. Veterans, parents and children testified on how medical marijuana helped increased their quality of life.

Need for Dispensaries Doubted

But Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu said dispensaries could put marijuana in the hands of minors. He added that labeling marijuana as medicine promotes drug use to teens.

Other law enforcement officials testified that the bill wouldn’t establish enough regulation for medical marijuana, and that dispensaries might increase the availability of marijuana for people who use it without a prescription.

Jason Kawabata of the Honolulu Police Department was especially concerned that marijuana-infused candies could fall into the hands of minors.

Chair Della Au Belatti listens as proponents/opoonents of HB321 regarding medical marijuana at the Capitol.  7 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/ Civil Beat

Rep. Della Au Belatti listens to testimony about a bill allowing establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Cory Lum/Civil beat

Some members of the law enforcement community said the bills could increase the marijuana black market in Hawaii, but Rep. Karl Rhoades pointed out that medical marijuana patients are currently forced to get their medicine from the black market if they can’t grow it themselves.

Honolulu Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tricia Nakamatsu elaborated on written testimony in which she said “there are 318 registered medical marijuana patients — statewide — who are unable to grow their own medical marijuana (and do not have a caregiver who can grow it for them).” She said dispensaries aren’t necessary.

Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed that testimony to Jill Nagamine of the Attorney General’s Office. AG spokeswoman Anne Lopez says the AG’s position is that the number of dispensaries should be determined by the Department of Health.

In addition, the earlier version stated that Nakamatsu implied in her verbal testimony that there are a total of fewer than 400 medical marijuana patients. The article has been changed to reflect her written testimony for the sake of clarity. 

The Department of Health has estimated that more than 13,000 people qualify for medical marijuana in Hawaii.

Samantha West, executive director of the Hawaii Epilepsy Foundation, said more 13,000 people suffer from epilepsy alone, which is a qualifying condition.

“[The bill] would give more access to patients for this lifesaving treatment,” West said.

Medical marijuana advocates said that because patients might not have legal access to medical marijuana, they might not pursue it as a treatment in the first place.

For now, patients must depend on their own gardening skills or those of a primary caregiver to legally fill their prescriptions. If they obtain it any other way, they can be criminally prosecuted under Hawaii’s drug laws.

Currently, patients can be prescribed medical marijuana if they had a debilitating condition such as severe pain or nausea, HIV/AIDS or multiple sclerosis. One of the proposed bills, HB 794, would give physicians the ability to prescribe medical marijuana for any condition that they feel it would help.

In recent years, state lawmakers have also decided to treat medical marijuana as a health issue, rather than a public safety issue. Act 178, which took effect Jan. 1, transferred the oversight of the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health. The bill also redefined what “adequate supply” meant, by allowing patients to have seven marijuana plants, regardless of the plants’ maturity.

Hawaii’s Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force has also been working over the last year to develop an effective dispensary system in the state.

Here are the bills relating to medical marijuana, and their current status:

HB 321 would establish medical marijuana dispensaries and productions centers across the state. The committees on health and judiciary will reconvene Tuesday to further discuss and then vote on the bill. If the bill passes through those committees, it will be given its first reading.

HB 788 would legalize growing marijuana for those registered with the Department of Health. This bill would require growers to abide by DOH rules, and prohibit the infusion of trademarked products with medical marijuana. The Committee on Health is expected to discuss it further Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

HB 1455 would allow patients or caregivers to transfer medical marijuana plants to other patients, as well as increase the amount of medical marijuana that patients can have. It would also increase the number of patients that a caregiver can care for at any given time.  The Committee on Health is expected to discuss it further Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

HB 794 would allow doctors to determine when a medical condition qualifies a patient to be prescribed medical marijuana. Doctors would be able to prescribe marijuana for an array of medical conditions, rather than just “debilitating” conditions as defined in the current medical marijuana laws. The Committee on Health is expected to discuss it further Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

HB 795 would protect employees who have medical marijuana prescriptions from workplace discrimination. The bill would protect employees from being fired if they failed a drug test, but the bill wouldn’t trump workplace policies that prevent the use of medical marijuana at work. The Committee on Health is expected to discuss it further Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

HB 993 adds that a specialist physician, in addition to a patient’s primary doctor, may provide the “written certification” needed for a medical marijuana prescription. The bill would also require patients to register with the DOH and provide consent for the release of medical information from their doctor.  The committees recommended the bill be discussed further Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

Three other marijuana-related bills were not discussed Saturday. They are:

SB 873, which would decriminalize and regulate small amounts of marijuana, while establishing rules for the cultivation and sale of marijuana for personal use. The bill would also define how marijuana would be taxed.

HB 889, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults, removing all criminal and civil penalties relating to marijuana from Hawaii’s criminal code, while establishing zoning laws for where marijuana can be grown. The law would ban those under 18 from using or possessing marijuana.

SB 879, which would change marijuana possession of less than one ounce to a civil rather than criminal penalty. The fine would be no more than $100.

In the last couple years, four states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado —  and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana. There are approximately 20 states that offer fines and civil penalties instead of criminal prosecution for marijuana-related offenses.

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