UPDATED 5/2/15 1:15 p.m.
Hawaii lawmakers have revived a bill to establish a medical marijuana dispensary system after conference committee negotiations collapsed Friday.
A conference committee made up of Senate and House negotiators plans to reconvene Monday at noon to consider House Bill 321, according to a Senate press release emailed at 1:21 a.m. Saturday.
Update At least 16 of the state’s 25 senators signed a petition asking the Senate to reconsider the House’s last proposal after Sen. Josh Green refused to agree to the final version of the measure.
In response, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim kicked Green off of the negotiating panel and made Sen. Will Espero the new chair.
Kim and House Speaker Joseph Souki sent a letter to all lawmakers Friday evening saying they decided to grant a waiver of negotiation and filing deadlines for the bill.
The deadline for completing negotiations was supposed to be 6 p.m. Friday. But under the waiver, the conference committee can meet between noon and 2 p.m. on Monday, with a conference committee report due by 5 p.m. that day.
The rule waiver comes after HB 321 had apparently died Friday when Green and Rep. Della Au Belatti couldn’t agree on the application process for potential dispensary owners.
Green rejected Belatti’s final draft of the bill, contending that it would invite organized crime into Hawaii. Belatti held her ground, saying that she was representing the view of House leadership.
A notice posted late Friday on the Legislature’s website revealed that Green had been discharged from the committee and Senate Majority Policy Leader Les Ihara was added to it. Espero, a big proponent of the bill and Senate Vice President, took Green’s place as the lead negotiator.
Kim announced Friday night that the Senate might agree to the final draft presented by Belatti. In that version, Belatti capitulated to many of Green’s concerns about the structure of the dispensary system but not his preference for a first-come, first-served application process.
The late developments came as a relief to Rafael Kennedy, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, who has been lobbying hard to pass the bill this year.
“We’re excited that there may still be an opportunity for this bill to be passed and get patients the access to medicine that they desperately need,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy began the week expecting approval, given the bill’s broad support in both the House and Senate. Medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii for 15 years and there’s consensus among political leaders that it’s time to give patients a place to legally buy it if they can’t or don’t want to grow their own.
But when the conference committee led by Green and Belatti met Tuesday, it became clear that there was a huge gulf between the lawmakers’ visions for the program.
Green preferred a program where a single health care professional in each county would own all of the dispensaries and marijuana farms. He wanted eligible applicants selected on a first-come, first-served basis, and said his version took into account concerns from law enforcement.
Belatti favored more licensees and dispensaries over a longer timeline. She wanted the state Department of Health to choose licensees through a merit-based evaluation. Compared with Green’s, her version was more in line with the recommendations of a state task force report.
House and Senate leadership have spent the last few days trying to convince Green and Belatti to come to an agreement.
Even Gov. David Ige got involved. Green spoke with Ige’s chief of staff Wednesday, but declined to meet with the governor directly and said he wouldn’t revise the bill even if the governor planned to veto it.
“The governor doesn’t know half of what I know or what you know or Sen. Espero knows about this program,” Green told Belatti Friday. “He is a fantastic guy but he is not in the trenches.”
While Green resisted Ige’s overtures, the senator did compromise some, including agreeing to expand the definition of who could own the dispensaries so that it wouldn’t be limited to health care providers.
For her part, Belatti agreed to permit fewer licensees, and adopted Green’s requirement that a licensee own both the dispensaries and the production centers.
But 40 minutes before the deadline, neither would budge on the application process.
Green argued that Belatti’s proposed process was ambiguous and would open the door to favoritism and lawsuits.
“It is a process that would result in behind closed doors decision-making that has utterly no connection to right or wrong,” said the senator from the Big Island.
Despite her longtime support for establishing dispensaries, Belatti stood firm.
“That simply is the only and last point remaining,” she said. “The House cannot accept the Senate’s decision and I’m sorry but the bill is deferred.” She slammed her gavel and left the packed room.
Minutes afterward, Espero met with Kim to try to figure out a way to revive the bill. Espero later said he had been preparing for the worst after watching the legislation go down to the wire.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz was also worried about the bill’s death, knowing the importance of the measure to Jari Sugano, a constituent who has a daughter with epilepsy.
Dela Cruz spoke with Espero and Ihara who said that Senate leadership would only be able to do something if they had the support of the majority of Senate members.
Once he finished with his conference committees, Dela Cruz went to as many colleagues as he could to ask them to sign a petition requesting the Senate to reconsider the final House version of HB 321.
At least 16 senators signed it before the Senate floor session convened at 6:30 p.m. Afterward, the Senate’s 24 Democrats went into caucus to discuss what to do.
Later, Belatti requested a recess during the House session and spoke quietly on the floor with House Speaker Joseph Souki, House Majority Leader Scott Saiki and Reps. Sylvia Luke and Karl Rhoads.
By 7:30 p.m. it became clear that the conference committee was planning to reconvene to resurrect the bill.
A press release sent around 8:15 p.m. announced that the bill would be heard at 8:30 p.m. but Kim later announced that the measure would wait until Monday.
The political wrangling over the measure illustrates the importance of the bill that many lawmakers believed was a sure thing this session.
“It was one last ditch effort and it was rather unorthodox,” Dela Cruz said. “I know the hardship that Jari and her family have gone through. This is going to provide some relief and some ability to give her daughter better care.”