It’s only been three months since Gov. David Ige signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries in Hawaii, but lawmakers are already drafting new legislation to amend Act 241.

Potential amendments range from eliminating the ban against interisland transport of medical cannabis to adding new qualifying ailments such as anxiety and insomnia.

“We’ve been identifying areas where there might not be as much clarity,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti, who chairs the House Health Committee and was one of the main authors of the law.


Representative Della Au Belatti walks out with Chair/Senator Will Espero during 1 hour recess. 4 may 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Della Au Belatti and Sen. Will Espero helped craft Hawaii’s medical marijuana dispensary law and are already planning for possible amendments. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under Act 241, licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana can be issued starting in April and dispensaries can open in July.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Hawaii 15 years ago, but the law required patients to grow their own plants or rely on a certified caregiver. The dispensary law approved this year will allow up to eight companies to open two dispensaries each in July 2016.

Inter-Island Transportation

Belatti said that she’s been re-evaluating a prohibition against transporting medical cannabis between islands and may consider proposing an amendment to allow companies to send small amounts of marijuana between islands for lab testing.

She called the current ban a “political compromise” with law enforcement officials who opposed legalizing dispensaries at all. The state attorney general testified that allowing inter-island transport of marijuana would violate a federal law banning “possession on board vessels.”

Lawmakers approved the ban knowing that it would limit dispensary access for patients on Molokai and Lanai, who would have to continue cultivating their own marijuana.

Sen. Will Espero is considering advocating to add anxiety, insomnia, arthritis and stress as qualifying conditions for receiving medical marijuana.

But during a legislative hearing last week, attorney Mitzi Vaughn from the National Cannabis Bar Association brought up another potential complication when she testified that it might be difficult to find a lab that would test medical cannabis solely for the two dispensaries located on Kauai.

She also suggested that the inability to send cannabis to other islands for testing may drive up the cost of the product on Kauai and urged lawmakers to consider what they’re doing “to make the access to cannabis meaningful for the patients.”

Vaughn noted that Portland International Airport allows passengers to carry cannabis on in-state flights. The recreational use of marijuana became legal in Oregon earlier this year.

Belatti is also considering changing an aspect of the law that bans the transport of marijuana “to, from, or within” federal property. That could be interpreted to mean that marijuana can’t be transported on federal highways or on roads that travel through military-owned land. H1, H2 and H3 are all federally funded highways.

Expanding the Program

While Belatti said she’s not proposing any major overhauls to Act 241, Sen. Will Espero is more ambitious.

He wants to revisit the structure of the medical marijuana industry. In the midst of heated negotiations last session, lawmakers decided to issue licenses that allow the same businesses to both grow and sell medi-pot. Espero wants to raise the possibility of distributing separate licenses for growing and selling.

The senator is drafting legislation to create a medical marijuana commission — an oversight board made up of stakeholders. He said he’s still considering the possible commission’s duties and responsibilities but added, “This could be one forum or area where people could go if they have issues or complaints or suggestions.”

Espero thinks it might make sense to allow patient-to-patient sales on neighbor islands that have fewer or no dispensaries to ensure that patients have a steady supply of cannabis if they have problems cultivating their own plants or the existing dispensaries aren’t producing enough supply.

Representative Richard Creagan. 17 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Richard Creagan proposed several marijuana bills last session, and is planning to introduce more. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The senator is also considering advocating to add anxiety, insomnia, arthritis and stress as qualifying conditions for receiving medical marijuana. According to the national advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project, only California and New Mexico consider some types of arthritis a qualifying condition for medical cannabis, and no states have approved it for anxiety, insomnia or stress.

Other measures that Espero may introduce would allow adjacent grow sites (currently producers must have two separated sites), dispensaries to sell medical cannabis on Sundays (that is against the law in the current legislation) and producers to grow marijuana in facilities with removable roofs (right now, cannabis must be grown in indoor facilities).

Despite his multitude of ideas, Espero said, “we don’t want to get overloaded with amendments … I’m weighing which ones do we really want to go after, which ones we don’t.”

Because next year is the second half of Hawaii’s biennial legislative session, bills to decriminalize or legalize marijuana are still viable. Espero said the former is more likely than the latter, but both proposals have traditionally died in the House.

Rep. Richard Creagan said that since 2016 is an election year, it will be more difficult to pass any sweeping changes. The physician from the Big Island was a freshman legislator this year and introduced several medical marijuana bills that didn’t go anywhere.

Still, he is planning on re-introducing bills that would allow patients to cultivate more plants and permit doctors to prescribe cannabis for any ailment.

He also wants to make it illegal for companies to discriminate against employees who use medical cannabis. Lawmakers passed an anti-discrimination bill this year, but left out employee protections.

To Creagan, the newly approved dispensary system is a good step, but it’s too restrictive and cumbersome and may drive the cost of legal marijuana too high.

“The bill hasn’t already come into effect and we’re already realizing that it’s inadequate,” he said. “The way it’s set up right now it’s going to perpetuate the black market.”

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