Friday, September 12, 2014

Hawaii's Need for Marijuana Dispensaries

            Suppose you’re injured from a car accident. You’re in a lot of pain. You don’t want to be prescribed the usual pain medication that would turn you into a zombie. Or maybe you’ve been diagnosed with an illness that has caused dramatic and even dangerous weight loss and your doctor wants you to gain and maintain weight on the double.
            Let’s say you want to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Despite some friends looking askance at your need for weed, you can. The law allows it.
            A physician first has to determine that the patient has a debilitating medical condition, which includes cancer, HIV, AIDS or even severe nausea or pain. The physician also has to certify that the potential benefits of using marijuana for medical purposes would likely outweigh the health risks for the patient. Both the patient and the physician have to register with the State.
            The government issues a certificate, which is now in the form of a little blue card from the Department of Public Safety. Once a patient has the “blue card,” he or she can lawfully acquire marijuana.
            But good luck getting your pot.
            This is the dilemma of nearly 13,000 patients who’ve been issued the blue card. These patients can acquire, possess, and use marijuana to treat their illnesses, conditions, or injuries. It is a viable alternative to traditional prescription drugs. And yet, the law does not provide a clear and legal way for these patients to get marijuana.
            In other words, it’s still against the law for someone to give patients marijuana. The practical reality is that to get marijuana, patients need someone willing to break the law. Drug dealers—by nature of their occupation—are willing, but in doing so, otherwise law-abiding sick people are exposes to the black market, which gets a bit dangerous at times.
            Our State has wrestled with this problem since the medical marijuana laws were passed almost fifteen years ago. It’s a problem that’s bugged more than a few legislators. Back in January, Maui’s own House Speaker, Joe Souki supported dispensaries to resolve the legislative loophole. But nothing happened.
            The senate was reluctant to get started on it and all that emerged from the headlines and media speculation about dispensaries was a joint resolution to create a task force. The committee would study the problem and come up with a report to recommend for the legislature in 2015. So no solution came about this year.
But that’s not the end of the story.            The task force has been touring the islands and been very public about its postings and findings. The University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center has been the central hub for all things related to the task force. If you’re really curious you can see it for yourself at: http://www.publicpolicycenter.hawaii.edu/projects-programs/hcr48.html
            One of the most talked-about ways to solve this problem is to set up a system that will bring this market out of the shadows. Other states have brought about heavily regulated (and heavily taxed) entities that are authorized to cultivate, harvest, and distribute marijuana for patients. Some places require a well-trained staff, heavy security, and quality control. It also could be a cash cow for the State.
It’s also a money maker. Colorado, for example, taxes up to $14,000 for medical marijuana cultivation centers. Three years ago, the City of Oakland alone apparently collected $1.4 million by taxing dispensaries. For now, the task force is working its way toward issuing a report and making recommendations to the Legislature in 2015.
Then maybe the real political beef will begin. One senator has been pretty keen on the idea and supported dispensaries (but he did not support outright legalization of marijuana). That was David Ige. When he ran against Neil Abercrombie he declared that he was “open” to dispensaries “if there’s a way we could do it so that those who would benefit from medical use of marijuana would get it legally without going to a drug dealer or growing it yourself.”
Now that he’s the Democratic front runner, he may be the one ushering in a new era of medical marijuana in Hawaii.
            But let’s not forget the loyal opposition. Police departments and prosecutors have opposed medical marijuana in any way, shape, or form. And law enforcement is still expected to oppose wide distribution of marijuana to patients.

            For now, the task force is wrapping up its studies and its recommendations will surely make a splash next year. If dispensaries are really going to happen, then our elected officials will have to close this legislative loophole over the objections of law enforcement. Maybe then patients can find a way to get what they are entitled to get without having to depend on someone else to break the law?