Hawaii could have medical marijuana dispensaries much sooner than initially anticipated — perhaps as soon as next year.

On Wednesday, the Senate Health and Public Safety committees passed House Bill 321, the bill that would create medical marijuana dispensaries and production centers in each Hawaii county.

But first, lawmakers amended the bill to allow dispensaries to begin operating next year. Sen. Josh Green, who chairs Health Committee, wants potential dispensary owners to be able to grow and prepare their product starting this fall.

The earlier draft of the bill would have put off dispensary operations for another three years, Green said.

“The goal of the legislation is to stand up medical marijuana dispensaries and soon as possible, in the most sensible and safe way as possible,” Green said. “Everyone in the state in 2016 should have access to medical marijuana.”

medical marijuana vial

Medical marijuana dispensaries could be operating in Hawaii sooner than anticipated.

Flickr: Mark

The legislation would allow licensed dispensary owners to grow their own pot, which wasn’t allowed in the previous draft of the bill. The earlier draft required business owners to apply for a separate medical marijuana grow license, which could slow down the process of opening dispensaries, Green said.

Medical marijuana patients have been waiting 15 years to get safe and legal access to medical marijuana. Hawaii was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 2000, but has since fallen behind the rest of the country when it comes to medical pot legislation.

Currently, patients rely on their own gardening skills, or that of a caregiver, to fill their prescriptions.

“Imagine having to cultivate your own penicillium in order to process it into penicillin? That would be unheard of,” Chris Bisnow said in support of HB 321.

But the bill was met by opposition from anti-drug advocates, nervous parents and a few law enforcement officials, who are concerned that dispensaries could put medical marijuana into the hands of children.

Walter Yoshimitsu, executive director of the Hawaii Catholic Conference, worried that marijuana might harm children’s health and promote irresponsible sexual behavior.

“There is a reason marijuana is the most widely used substance in the world– it’s an addiction,” said Eva Andrade, executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum.

Lawmakers hoped to address their concerns by amending the bill to require that dispensary owners be licensed health care providers and Hawaii residents, which was recommended by Harry Kubojiri, who is the police chief of Hawaii Police Department. Also, anyone who has a felony wouldn’t able to work at a dispensary or grow center.

Kubojiri also recommended that dispensary owners be required to test medical marijuana for potency, which was adopted into the bill. HB 321 would require packaging to be child-resistant and opaque, and list the contents and potency of the product.

And dispensaries would not be able to operate within 750 feet of schools, playgrounds or public housing complexes. HB 321 also requires dispensaries and production centers to install alarm systems and security cameras, as well as a computer system that tracks medical marijuana inventory.

“I think we all agreed that we don’t want anyone raiding a medical marijuana grow center,” said Green.

There would also be a provision in the bill that would require public education on medical marijuana and strict labeling requirements. Advocates say that public education on the uses of marijuana is critical to the success of the proposed law.

The Department of Health estimates that there are more than 13,000 patients who qualify for medical marijuana in Hawaii.

But there could be many more. There are at least 13,000 Hawaii residents who have seizures, which is a qualifying condition to receive medical marijuana, said Samantha West, who is the director for Epilepsy Foundation of Hawaii.

Right now, patients can be prescribed medical marijuana only by a primary care physician if they have a debilitating condition like cancer, HIV/AIDS, severe nausea or glaucoma.

The Senate version of HB 321 would allow any licensed physician to prescribe medical marijuana for qualifying medical conditions. There was a bill introduced this session that would have allowed doctors to determine which medical condition qualifies a patient to use medical marijuana, but it was deferred.

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