I would like to thank Zuri Aki and Mehealani Traub for their essay in the Community Voices column of Civil Beat on Feb. 19. By raising questions on the legislative intent behind laws criminalizing the possession and use of marijuana, they provoke discussion and deliberation on measures currently before the Hawaii State Legislature to regulate medical marijuana and this commodity in the marketplace. That is good. Like all issues prompting proposed legislation, community input is vital for proposals to be refined for the good of all.

They mention a bill that I introduced this year as an example of government’s attempt to “over-regulate” marijuana. So that the readers of Civil Beat obtain a balanced understanding of this issue, I feel compelled to explain the rationale behind this bill and others that I have introduced.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are expected to open this summer in Hawaii.
Medical marijuana dispensaries are expected to open this summer in Hawaii. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s Medical Marijuana Dispensary Law, Act 241, Session Laws of Hawaii 2015, was premised on the belief that “many of the State’s nearly 13,000 qualifying patients lack the ability to grow their own supply.” Yet, according to a survey by the Department of Public Safety of Hawaii’s 13,937 registered medical marijuana patients, only 318 could not grow their own plants. That’s less than 3 percent of all registered patients… LESS THAN 3%.   Despite this, the new law allows the Department of Health to license up to 16 retail dispensaries for 318 patients. That’s one dispensary for every 20 patients.

There are 287 pharmacies in Hawaii serving nearly 1.42 million people – or one pharmacy for every 4,947 people. Compare one medical marijuana retail dispensary location for 20 patients to one pharmacy for every 4,947 people. And even if 16 retail dispensary locations served all 13,937 permitted users, there would still be one retail dispensary location for every 871 card-carrying users.

While Dept. of Health administrators anticipate card-carrying users to double from 13,937 to over 27,000 over the next year, the new law provides the infrastructure for a 500 percent increase if they were to service patients the same as pharmacies. In other words, the new law establishes more than FIVE TIMES the medical marijuana retail dispensaries for medical marijuana users than there are pharmacies for citizens.

The new law allows the Department of Health to license up to 16 retail dispensaries for 318 patients. That’s one dispensary for every 20 patients.

So if medical marijuana will be accessible through the new dispensary system, why is there a need for patients to grow their own marijuana?

Also, while the law says patients can grow up to seven marijuana plants and possess four ounces of marijuana, Health has no staff to compel compliance to these important public safety and health restrictions. And, this has been the case – no monitoring or compliance efforts on the possession amount or plant count over the Medical Marijuana Law’s 15-year history since 2000 and that is the case under both a Republican (Lingle), and Democrat (Abercrombie) governor. And, it is the same, whether the program was housed in Public Safety or Health. In short, we have had and continue to have a de facto legalization program for those with a valid medical marijuana card.

So what happens to the excess marijuana grown by patients? Law enforcement and health officials believe that much of it is sold or transferred illegally. Both instances would be in violation of the Medical Marijuana Law and other State and federal laws. That is exactly the problem Colorado is facing right now – a problem we should avoid. As you may know, diversion of medical marijuana to illegal uses is the sort of activity that may draw attention of federal law enforcement pursuant to the Cole Memorandum.

Bill Would Cap Retail Price of Medical Marijuana

As of this date, no dispensary has been established, and no one knows how high the prices will be. But people with genuine medical diseases and under the care of their doctor should not have medical marijuana withheld because they can’t afford it. That is why I also introduced House Bill No. 2455, which would cap the maximum retail prices of medical marijuana. This is not an original idea, but modeled after similar policies and programs in New York, New Mexico and Washington D.C. As you may not know, I share the same concerns of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founder, Mr. Keith Stroup, that the medical marijuana business will be controlled by profiteers and mainland corporate interests.

Finally, I have also filed a bill to avoid a similar national crisis of the over-use of powerful pain medications like OxyContin. This is a problem of epidemic proportion. States are only now reacting to address this but Hawaii could avoid a similar problem with over-certification of medical marijuana. I would hope we might be more proactive and therefore establish that all doctors issuing medical marijuana certificates be monitored by the Medical Review Board as set forth in House Bill No. 1677.

We need to carefully balance the interest and desires of both patients and the general community.

Are these bills perfect? Hardly. Aki and Traub raise a very important point that licensed dispensaries might not be situated on every island. And that situation has already been addressed in the current law that permits medical marijuana patients to grow their own marijuana on an island where there is no dispensary. On the other hand, has there been any indication that medical marijuana patients on any of these islands have experienced difficulty in growing their marijuana? If they can already grow their own marijuana, is there a need for a dispensary on those islands? Keep in mind that we need to carefully balance the interest and desires of both patients and the general community.

Should these bills be scheduled for public hearing, they could be amended to specifically address points like this. Perhaps a home grow prohibition could apply only to those islands where a dispensary is located. But all discussions must have a starting point, and these bills were intended to do just that – be a starting point for discussion.

Hawaii can still provide medical marijuana to those who need it in the safest, most efficient and effective manner possible. I am committed to this goal. I have been since 2000, when I also championed the passage of the measure while serving as the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. Anything less would be a disservice to patients and communities.

Again, thank you to Zuri Aki and Mehealani Traub for their insightful column. Injecting themselves and their ideas into the arena of public discussion and civil debate is commendable. It is my sincere request however that they and Civil Beat readers will fairly consider the reasons why I introduced these bills and work with me to ensure that the needs of all citizens – the consumers of medical marijuana and those who don’t — are met.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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