Hawaii lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday that reforms many aspects of the state’s medical marijuana dispensary law but left enough on the table that medical marijuana advocates are likely to be back at the Capitol lobbying next session.
The Hawaii Senate voted unanimously to pass House Bill 2707, which amends various aspects of the state law establishing a dispensary system. The House approved the bill 36-12.
Hawaii has allowed patients to cultivate their own medical cannabis for 16 years, but only approved dispensaries last year. Last week, the state Department of Health selected eight companies to receive licenses to grow and sell marijuana, and dispensaries are expected to open their doors this year.
If Gov. David Ige allows HB 2707 to go into law, advanced practice registered nurses, in addition to physicians, will be able to certify patients to use medical cannabis.
Carl Bergquist, executive director at the advocacy group Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said he hopes the change will make it easier for patients to access medical cannabis, given that many physicians are unwilling to recommend it.
“We can get a million inquiries but I can’t certify anyone,” he said. “The more people we have who are aware of this and who are willing to do this, the better.”
HB 2707 also adds an exception to the ban on transporting marijuana across islands. If the bill becomes law, companies will be able to carry cannabis between islands for the sole purpose of getting the drug tested in a lab.
“As the only license holder on Kauai, we just don’t know if there will be a testing facility on our island,” Casey Rothstein, director of operations for Green Aloha, said in an email Tuesday praising the measure. “It is important that we can ship our products to facilities on other islands for testing.”
The bill also gets rid of the prohibition against dispensaries opening on Sundays, and exempts medical marijuana patients and companies that grow and sell weed from laws that ban the possession of drug paraphernalia.
By adding a specific definition for the word “plant” that clarifies production centers may have 3,000 plants that are at least 12 inches high, the law implies that “you could have an infinite number of seedlings and clones waiting to mature,” said Christopher Garth from the state’s medical marijuana trade group the Hawaii Dispensary Alliance.
Dr. Gregory Park, chairman of Maui Wellness Group, one of two companies selected to open dispensaries in Maui County, echoed praise for the new plant definition and exemption for inter-island travel for lab testing.
“We appreciate the legislature’s efforts to strike a proper balance between clarifying areas where questions have arisen while maintaining the integrity of the application and selection process for everyone who invested significant time and effort to obtain a license,” he said.
But while advocates and legislators praised HB 2707, they also lamented aspects that were missing from it.
Sen. Will Espero, who helped write the legislation to establish dispensaries last year, said he plans try again next year to get the state to approve edibles: “baked goods, candy-like products, drinks, smoothies,” he listed.
“The act of inhaling the smoke into your lungs — if you can avoid that you should avoid that,” he said.
Current law allows patients to buy cannabis pills, lozenges, oils and lotions in addition to straight-up weed.
The bill approved Tuesday adds skin patches and inhalers to the list, but a proposal to allow dispensaries to sell pre-rolled joints didn’t make it past the negotiating period of the legislative session, to the disappointment of Bergquist.
“It’s a misguided conflation of the problems with tobacco,” he contended.
Wendy Gibson, an advocate at the Medical Cannabis Coalition of Hawaii, agreed. She also said she may lobby next year for a bill to make it illegal for employers to fire someone for using medical cannabis, if he or she is a certified patient.
“Patients still don’t have any rights, as far as employment goes,” she said. Lawmakers rejected a similar proposal last year.
Another issue is the general prohibition against patients carrying medical marijuana between islands. That effectively bars Molokai and Lanai residents from getting cannabis legally, and Espero said it’s a problem he’ll continue to work on.
Then there are labor issues. Pat Loo, who leads United Food & Commercial Workers Local 480, a union for cannabis-industry employees, said in an email that he hopes lawmakers will address cannabis employee safety, training and compensation next year.
Legislators killed a resolution this year that would have requested a study of fair wages for employees in the marijuana industry.
As for the eight companies that were recently chosen to dispense marijuana, the law doesn’t say anything about where they are supposed to get seeds or seedlings.
Espero and Rep. Della Au Belatti suggested that companies could get plants from existing patients and caregivers, even though there’s no legal mechanism for them to sell their plants.
Espero said state law has been silent on where legal marijuana comes from ever since Hawaii legalized a grow-your-own program for patients in 2000.
“Mum’s the word,” he said. “It does grow in the wild.”
HB 2707 attempts to address the highly criticized prohibition against greenhouses that was outlined in the state’s medical marijuana dispensary program rules.
Given Hawaii’s sunny weather and high electricity costs, advocates say it makes no sense to grow cannabis in dark warehouses.
The bill approved Tuesday reaffirms that greenhouses are prohibited but says that companies that are renewing their dispensary licenses or applying for future licenses can grow cannabis in facilities with translucent roofs.
“What we were trying to do is make sure we didn’t do anything that would give rise to anyone saying, ‘Well if we had known we could do that, we would have put in an application,'” said Sen. Rosalyn Baker, the lead Senate negotiator on the bill.
But HB 2707 also says that cannabis companies that want see-through roofs “shall notify the department of that intention prior to altering or constructing the facility.”
Baker said that provision goes into effect this year and would allow the eight companies who received licenses last week to ask the Department of Health for permission to build transparent roofs.
That’s good news to Garth, whose trade group represents the eight companies with dispensary licenses. Belatti, the lead House negotiator on the bill, said that wasn’t lawmakers’ intention.
“The intention is for this (provision) to be prospective,” she said. “We don’t want to interfere with the current application process.”
Belatti said by establishing a working group and requiring the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to collect data on the budding industry, HB 2707 provides mechanisms for continuing to improve the state dispensary law.
“Anything that we may have missed out on, we’ll hopefully discover with the legislative working group,” she said.