Should Hawaii follow the lead of some other states and restrict medical marijuana to large state-run dispensaries and massive growing operations? Or should it allow small farmers to obtain licenses to grow enough for themselves and a few other patients?
Both avenues have their merits and pitfalls, local medical marijuana advocates are saying, as a state task force readies for a Sept. 10 public hearing in Hilo. The Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force will take public comments from 5 to 8 p.m. in Aupuni Center.
The Hilo hearing is the only neighbor island hearing planned by the task force so far. Almost half the state’s 13,115 registered medical marijuana patients live on Hawaii Island.
On the one hand, said Matthew Brittain, a licensed social worker in Hilo who coordinates physicians and patients, there is a more consistent product with the big state-run dispensaries. On the other, he said, there would be less illegal marijuana sales if medical marijuana patients could sell their excess crop to other patients.
“A lot of independent growers are very good at growing marijuana,” Brittain said. “People are going to be growing their weed anyway. If they could sell it (legally), there’d be less diversion to the black market.”
Brittain said he has toured a Colorado dispensary and a huge warehouse where marijuana was being grown.
Hawaii’s law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for certain conditions was signed by the governor in 2000, but patients can’t obtain their medicine without growing it themselves, finding someone to register as a caregiver to grow it for them or committing a felony by buying it on the black market.
Andrea Tischler, chairwoman of the Big Island chapter of Americans for Safe Access and a medical marijuana patient, said she’s concerned that big dispensaries will price patients out of their medicine.
“A collective, a hui of patients, that would be preferable to a high-end dispensary,” Tischler said.
The task force was created by the Legislature this year to develop recommendations for the establishment of a statewide dispensary system for medical marijuana patients. The 2015 Legislature is expected to consider the recommendations, and if dispensaries are created by law, they would likely be available in 2016, said Tischler.
The Legislature this year also passed a measure transferring oversight of the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health by Jan. 1.
Hawaii Island had 5,364 medical marijuana patients in April, compared to 2,969 on Maui, 2,743 on Oahu, 1,856 on Kauai, 181 on Molokai and two on Niihau, according to state Department of Public Safety data. That’s 2.8 percent of Hawaii Island’s population, compared to 0.28 percent of Oahu’s.
In Hawaii, 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.
Severe pain is by far the predominant reason for prescribing marijuana, according to the Department of Public Safety.
The task force is addressing policy, logistics, manufacturing and taxation issues. At its regular meeting Tuesday at the state Capitol, it is scheduled to follow up on an update of the program by Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai, according to the draft agenda.
The task force, composed of representatives from the House, the Senate, relevant state agencies, the medical profession, law enforcement, the Drug Policy Forum, American Civil Liberties Union, a caregiver and two medical marijuana recipients, is coordinated by the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center. Information can be found at publicpolicycenter.hawaii.edu/projects-programs/hcr48.html.
The public can also submit written testimony less than 10MB in size by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The task force found a venue for 100 people, but Brittain thinks 30 to 60 might attend.
“A lot of people don’t want to show up,” he said. “There’s a fear, fear of a stigma, to presenting themselves as patients in a public forum.”