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Audit says medical marijuana dispensaries justified

Updated: 
December 4, 2014 - 12:05am

Hawaii lawmakers are moving ahead on bills creating medical marijuana dispensaries, following an audit released this week that said flaws in existing law justify a better way to provide the drug to patients.

“Because the sale of marijuana is illegal under state law, there is no place within the state to legally obtain marijuana, which forces qualifying medical marijuana patients to either grow their own medical marijuana or seek out black market products,” said Jan K. Yamane, acting state auditor, in the report dated December 2014. “For this overriding reason, we conclude that regulation of dispensaries is needed to protect the public from potential harm.”

State Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, said he’s sure several bills will be considered by the state Legislature after it convenes Jan. 21. He said he’s confident a bill will pass and it will be signed by Gov. David Ige.

“At the end of the day for me, it’s about the patient-physician relationship,” said Green, who is a physician. He wants to see the state program become more mainstream.

“The program needs to be very tightly regulated,” Green said. “And it should be about the patients who need it most having access.”

Hawaii’s law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for certain conditions was signed by former Gov. Ben Cayetano in 2000. Marijuana can be prescribed for these conditions: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, including those characteristic of epilepsy, severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s disease and any other medical condition approved by the state Department of Health.

Recent changes in the law increased the amount of medical marijuana a patient can possess from four to seven plants, in addition to up to 4 ounces of dried marijuana. The new law also requires the drug to be prescribed by the patient’s primary physician beginning Jan. 2, a move to curtail the proliferation of “pot docs” around the state.

It also moved the program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health. That transition is ongoing and expected to be completed by the end of the year. No medical marijuana applications will be taken from Dec. 12 to 31 to allow for the transition.

Hawaii is one of 23 states and the District of Columbia that allow legal marijuana use for medical reasons. Almost half the state’s roughly 13,000 registered medical marijuana patients live on Hawaii Island.

The Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force has been working on the issue since early this year. Rep. Della Au Belatti, an Oahu Democrat and chairwoman of the House Health Committee who has been overseeing the task force, said the task force meets Dec. 16 to finalize its report to the Legislature.

“The audit actually references a lot of the work the task force is doing,” Au Bellati said Wednesday.

Green said the research the task force did into how other states handle medical marijuana dispensaries will be invaluable in setting them up for Hawaii.

“A lot of important research was done in the past seven months,” Green said. “My hope is to take the best practices of other states.”

There’s still a lot of work to firming up details of a medical marijuana dispensary program. Among the factors will be how many dispensaries should be created, should they be for-profit or nonprofit, will they work side-by-side with existing law for those who want to grow their own, how should the dispensaries be licensed and how will quality control procedures be implemented.

The state will also need to decide on a licensing fee for each dispensary that covers the cost of administering the program. The Department of Health anticipates charging graduated fees of $10,000, $35,000 or $50,000 per dispensary based on the number of patients served.

The Health Department believes 20 dispensaries statewide would be a reasonable number. At an average of more than $30,000 per dispensary, this would amount to more than $600,000 in revenue and fully cover the agency’s estimated program costs, auditors noted.

The state currently charges patients a $25 registration fee annually; a fee that will increase to $35 on Jan. 2.

The audit was conducted because of a state law requiring the probable effects of all new professional and occupational licensing programs be analyzed by the Office of the Auditor before they are enacted.

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