Margaret “Peggy” Leong has spent the last eight and a half years working as a parish administrator at St. John Vianney Parish in Kailua.

But for the past two weeks, Leong has had a very different job: Taking the reins of Hawaii’s newly minted medical marijuana dispensary program at the state Department of Health.

As dispensary licensing supervisor, Leong’s work involves managing a program that’s scheduled to issue eight licenses in mid-April to grow and sell medical cannabis statewide.

Margaret "Peggy" Leong
Margaret “Peggy” Leong Courtesy of DOH

Hawaii has allowed patients to cultivate their own medical marijuana for 15 years, but this program represents the first time they will be able to buy it legally. Many entrepreneurs have been spending lots of time and money to apply for the coveted licenses that will allow each business to open two dispensaries and two production centers next summer.

Leong’s new job draws heavily on her legal expertise as former deputy attorney general, representing the state on housing and family law matters between 1997 and 2007.

But it’s the first time her work has involved cannabis, perhaps not surprising, given that marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 drug under federal law.

Leong said in a phone interview Thursday that she took the job because it seemed like an exciting opportunity.

“With my administrative background and legal background, it seemed like a good fit,” she said.

At St. John Vianney Parish, Leong was the church administrator responsible for implementing Diocesan policies and procedures. That included managing finances and staff, recruiting volunteers and overseeing facility maintenance.

Prior to that, Leong worked at private law offices and as a law clerk. She graduated from the University of Hawaii law school in 1991 and has over 20 years of legal experience.

When asked about her vision for the program, Leong deferred to the law that Gov. David Ige signed last summer creating the dispensary program.

“My job is to make sure that the statute is carried out,” she said, noting the need to meet all statutory deadlines.

Leong has joined the department just weeks before the Jan. 4 deadline by which the agency must publish its draft rules governing the dispensary program.

The Health Department issued a notice on Friday announcing that applications for medical marijuana dispensary licenses will be available at 8 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2016 and can be submitted through the agency’s website from Jan. 12 through Jan. 29.

The Health Department is expected to select a seed-to-sale computer software tracking system this month to keep tabs on all medical cannabis grown and sold in Hawaii.

Leong is also hiring staff members for the program. So far, she’s the only program employee. She’s looking for an accountant, a secretary and two surveyors.

There’s no guarantee those positions will be filled before the applications begin to roll in next month.

But the program is being assisted by other Department of Health staff in the Office of Health Care Assurance, and the state attorney general is helping to write the rules.

There are many unanswered questions. Leong said the department is still figuring out who ultimately will review the applications and select the licensees.

The agency also still is weighing how much public transparency there should be during the application process, an issue that’s caused problems in states such as Massachusetts and Illinois.

“We’re very well aware about the need for transparency; however we also have a process that needs to be protected and be sure it’s done well and without any outside influence,” Leong said.

She emphasized that the interim rules that are currently being written up “are very close” to the statute.

“The biggest thing that I think everyone is aware of — and I want to reiterate — is that safety and access are our priority,” she said.

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