Half of all positions are still vacant in state offices that oversee the medical cannabis patient and dispensary programs.

In 2015 the Legislature passed the state law that paved the way for Hawaii’s dispensary system to open under the Department of Health. The first dispensaries opened last summer.

Just one of five positions in the state’s Dispensary Licensing Program are filled, though a new supervisor starts next week. The dispensary program’s lone employee is a secretary, while DOH is recruiting for an accountant and two inspectors, one of which could start this week.

The health department is actively recruiting for new employees to serve in its medical cannabis programs.

Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

Three of seven positions are vacant in the Patient Registry Program, but the department is at different stages of recruitment for those jobs. At least one round of interviews has been completed for four of the six vacant positions in the patient and dispensary programs.

Dispensary representatives say relationships between the industry and state have improved, despite those vacancies and complaints about slow response times and confusing rules in the recent past. And a bill to make the state’s medical cannabis program more efficient by consolidating the patient and dispensary sides has sailed through the Legislature.

Five dispensaries — three on Oahu and two on Maui — are authorized to sell cannabis. More than 20,000 patients statewide can purchase the drug.

Smaller Staff, Better Communication

In recent months, high ranking DOH officials, including Director Virginia Pressler, have met more frequently with an alliance of all eight dispensary licensees to discuss questions and operational matters. The alliance is known as HEALTH, or Hawaii Educational Association for Licensed Therapeutic Healthcare.

The meetings have spurred improved dialogue between the two sides, which have been “learning together” since dispensaries opened, said Teri Gorman, HEALTH spokeswoman.

Dispensaries are concerned about the staffing shortages but are satisfied that DOH is actively recruiting to fill those positions.

“I think certainly we have more open and more frequent communication,” she said, adding both the state and dispensary representatives have expressed a “willingness to hear and understand” each other.

In December, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported dispensaries complained that staffing shortages in the health department were partly to blame for setbacks in the program. At that time, DOH said the vacancies did not have a major impact on the program.

Aloha Green, on King Street in Honolulu, is one of three medical marijuana dispensaries on Oahu. There are two more on Maui.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The department is understaffed but still generally does a good job responding to dispensaries, said Helen Cho, spokeswoman for Aloha Green, an Oahu dispensary. Industry representatives frequently interact with the state dispensary program’s only employee and “we understand that this person is a human being” that can only do so much, Cho said.

“We only were able to finally get to this point when we realized that (pointing fingers) doesn’t help anybody,” Cho said. “We hit a wall.”

The department sees things differently.

“I think we’ve had a good relationship from the beginning,” said Keith Ridley, acting head of the dispensary program and chief of the DOH Office of Healthcare Assurance. “We had good lengthy discussions right from the beginning to ensure them that we wanted them to be successful.”

Asked about vacancies in the dispensary program, Ridley noted the department has made offers to two applicants for inspector positions.

He attributed delays in filling the dispensary program positions to the state’s low unemployment rate and said many applicants were simply unqualified. There’s been some interest from current state employees, but positions in the dispensary program are classified as temporary.

“It’s hard to find good people with the kind of background that we’re looking for,” Ridley said.

More Efficient Cannabis Program?

Patient and dispensary complaints prompted the introduction of House Bill 2742, which would create an Office of Medical Cannabis Control and Regulation. Lawmakers tried to pass a similar measure last year.

Roughly 20,000 Hawaii cannabis patients have cards, pictured above.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The bill aims to consolidate the dispensary licensing and patient registry programs, which sit under two different branches of the health department. In written testimony, DOH estimated the office would cost almost $3 million in the next fiscal year.

HB 2742 also requests an unspecified dollar amount to hire four new positions to aid in the transition: a program manager, IT specialist, data analyst and administrative assistant. Those programs would cost almost $300,000, according to testimony.

Rep. John Mizuno, sponsor of the bill, said that money would be well-invested and dispensaries would benefit greatly from the consolidation of the programs.

“We’ve got over 20,000 card carrying members that use medical cannabis and administratively, we felt that the Department of Health was not very efficient in working with the dispensaries and working with the medical patients,” he said.

The Hawaii Dispensary Alliance, a medical cannabis trade group, lobbied against a similar bill last session, arguing that the medical cannabis patient and dispensary sides should be separate and autonomous, said Christopher Garth, executive director of HDA. Officials who oversee dispensary licensees, for example, shouldn’t necessarily be focused on patient health, he said.

Now, Garth says the bill is a “step in the right direction.”

He feels the Office of Health Care Assurance, which oversees the dispensary program, has treated medical cannabis “as a matter of public safety instead of public health” and has failed to educate the public about dispensaries and cannabis cards.

It would allocate sorely needed funding and positions to the medical cannabis program, he said.

HDA didn’t go so far as to support the bill in testimony, said Garth, who called the bill a “piecemeal” fix and felt the bill didn’t ensure accountability of dispensaries.

HB 2742 now heads to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, if Chair Donovan Dela Cruz decides to hear it.

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