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Bill aims to tie up loose ends in medical marijuana law

Updated: 
March 7, 2016 - 1:30am

Months before Hawaii’s first dispensaries open shop, legislators are mulling an omnibus bill that aims to tie up loose ends in the current medical marijuana law and increase access for patients.

The 32-page House Bill 2707, introduced by Oahu Democrat Rep. Della Au Belatti, cleared its third reading last week and is set to cross over to the Senate.

If passed, the measure would:

— Establish a medical marijuana advisory commission which would monitor the state’s dispensary program and submit an annual report each year to the Legislature.

— Authorize the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism to collect data about the program such as, the amount of marijuana grown and dispensed, the number of marijuana-related jobs available, price information and the program’s economic impact.

— Clarify that certain state tax provisions do not apply to dispensaries — a form of tax relief to help keep prices low.

— Give advanced practice registered nurses the ability to certify patients.

— Clarify that prohibitions regarding drug paraphernalia do not apply to people who use medical marijuana legally.

— Include transdermal patches, marijuana cigarettes and inhalants among types of medical cannabis products patients can legally use.

— Define terms related to dispensary and medical cannabis laws such as “enclosed indoor facility,” “batch” and “plant.”

— Allow medical weed to be transported between islands for testing, if a lab isn’t available where the dispensary is located.

— Allow certain programs within the University of Hawaii to conduct marijuana-related testing and research.

Hilo Democrat Rep. Mark Nakashima and Puna Democrat Rep. Joy San Buenaventura co-signed the measure.

Buenaventura said she threw in her support because the original law was written “more in favor of law enforcement” rather than patients, which “disappointed the Legislature.” She thinks Belatti’s bill gives a more “pro-patient interpretation” of the law, and ultimately would help stamp out a booming black market.

Hawaii legalized the drug for medicinal purposes in 2000, but up until last year, when the state’s medical marijuana dispensary program was established, patients have had no way to buy it. Historically, they’ve either have to grow it themselves or acquire it through a caretaker. Many have instead turned to the black market. Lawmakers hope dispensaries will change that, but some have worried if dispensary prices are too high, and rules too prohibitive, many patients will continue buying illegally.

“By passing this law, we want to kill the black market as much as possible,” Buenaventura said. “We can’t do it completely because we did not legalize it … I know a number of people would like to see it completely legalized, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. By making (the law) more pro-patient rather than pro-law enforcement, we hope (patient) access … to dispensaries will be easier.”

Lawmakers have pitched several other bills aimed at clarifying parts of the dispensary law. For example, state Sen. Russell Ruderman proposed a measure that would allow secured greenhouses and shadehouses to serve as medical marijuana production centers. That bill passed its second reading in the Senate and on Thursday was placed on the calendar for a third reading.

Another bill that is still alive would give the state Department of Health ability to visit dispensaries unannounced and conduct re-licensing inspections. And another bill, which had vocal opposition but was never heard, would have prohibited patients from growing marijuana at home.

Bellatti told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald her bill aims to clarify law in a way that “brings the industry into the light” and “enhance patient access.” Some in the medical marijuana community may prefer to see complete legalization, she said, but she said she believes the bill is “acting responsibly.”

“With any kind of law of this magnitude, where we’re basically bringing up an entire regulatory system, one of the things I’ve learned is we always come and back and tweak the law,” Bellatti said. “This is the second year of the law, and clearly there are things that got missed — we got the big stuff going last year but it’s a process, especially as this industry develops and we learn more. So people should expect changes, and we’re doing it in a methodical way.”

Statewide, 66 applicants are vying for eight dispensary licenses, which the state Department of Health will announce April 15.

On the Big Island, where about 40 percent of Hawaii patients live, 14 applicants are vying for two licenses. Among them are Hilo Realtor Hank Correa, former banana farmer Richard Ha and Pahoa school teacher Denim Cretton.

Each license allows up to two retail locations and two grow sites. Dispensaries can open starting July 15.

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