With less than six weeks to go before the state is scheduled to announce the winners of licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana, the Department of Health still hasn’t chosen the members of a panel that will evaluate the applications.

The department received 66 applications for eight licenses on four islands, and state law says it must announce the winners by April 15.

“We’re making every effort to try to make that April 15 selection date,” said department spokeswoman Janice Okubo. “That’s still our goal but we realize it is creeping up and getting tight.”

The department doesn’t have a specific timeline — or even a procedure — for choosing selection committee members, said Okubo.

Marijuana dispensary head Attorney Margaret Peggy Leong. 28 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Margaret “Peggy” Leong, who leads the medical marijuana dispensary program, speaks at a legislative hearing last December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Margaret “Peggy” Leong, who was hired in December to lead the medical marijuana dispensary program, is single-handedly reviewing each of the applications to ensure that they’re valid and meet legal requirements, said Okubo.

If all 66 applications reached the 50-page limit, that would equal 3,300 pages worth of applications, in addition to their attachments.

Leong is also busy finalizing the state’s contract with Bio Track THC, a software company that will track marijuana plants; testifying on bills at the state Legislature; and interviewing job applicants. She recently hired two surveyors and a secretary and is searching for an accountant.

“It’s a lot of work so she is scrambling,” said Okubo, adding: “We would want to give the selection panel at least a few weeks to make their review and make their decision, but we don’t have a set schedule.”

Sen. Josh Green, a doctor from the Big Island who was last year’s Health Committee chairman, said he is worried that the program’s implementation could be delayed.

“It should have been done three months ago,” he said of finalizing the selection panel.

The law says licensees will be announced by April 15, and dispensaries may start selling marijuana by July 15.

“They have the wiggle room that the government always has, which is to blow it,” Green said of the deadline. “At this point, that is very likely.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that the department has missed a statutory deadline. The Legislature passed a bill requiring that the agency post care home inspection reports online by Jan. 1, 2015, but not all of the reports are online yet.

Sen. Will Espero, a lawmaker from Ewa who leads the Senate Public Safety Committee, is more optimistic than Green. He said he expects the panel members to be chosen within the next two to three weeks. But he said the Health Department should “give us a better answer than ‘I don’t have a specific timetable.’”

“At six weeks out, in my opinion they should have a very specific timetable and be able to tell us when these names will be public,” Espero said.

Like Espero, Carl Bergquist from the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii is confident in the department’s ability to meet the April 15 deadline. But he said that it would be better to know the names of the selection committee members sooner rather than later so the public has ample time to flag any possible conflicts of interest.

“In the name of fairness, I hope that they will announce those names as soon as possible,” Bergquist said.

The department initially said that it wouldn’t publish the names of selection committee members but later agreed to do so under pressure from the news media.

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