Medical pot bills under the gun

LIHU‘E — County prosecutors are concerned that marijuana legalization advocates may influence state legislative decisions because those advocates are well organized and more active than their opponents.

A host of marijuana bills are introduced in the state Legislature each session but so far Kaua‘i’s four members have not signed on the proposals.

Local leaders gathered Aug. 30 at the War Memorial Convention Hall for presentations on many drug-related issues impacting Kaua‘i, from marijuana use to prescription drug abuse. Hosted by the county’s Anti-Drug Office, the goal was to present current legislative efforts for better control and to show support for an adolescent treatment center.

Keith Kamita, state deputy director of Public Safety, said that while alcohol remains the most common drug used by teens, marijuana follows closely. And now prescription medication abuse is surpassing the use of illicit drugs, he said.

Kaua‘i is the only county with state lawmakers who did not support marijuana legalization bills last year. Kamita said there were 255 patients with medical marijuana prescriptions in 2001, and that number has since risen by several thousands.

State Rep. Dee Morikawa, D-16th District, said she has sympathy for people who are suffering and said if doctors say medical marijuana will help, then she would support laws that clearly define its use for the seriously and terminally ill. She said she will not, however, support bills that attempt to expand the law beyond its intended purpose.

“It’s just about the compassion for me,” she said.

The relaxation of marijuana laws has a flaw that attracted “420” doctors (a term based on a police code but used in this instance to mean marijuana friendly) from around the country, Kamita said. These doctors have set up offices, sometimes at hotels, for the purpose of working around the intent of laws to prescribe to eager users. It is not the doctor-patient relationship that the law intended, he added.

The other issue is the expanding list of legitimate use. It has gone from the debilitating or terminal conditions — such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, and others — that won support from empathetic legislators to non-life-threatening conditions and questionable pain issues.

This, combined with other legal flaws that allow other household members and caregivers to grow additional plants, has all the appearances of the industrialization of a product for non-personal use, he said. Another tell-tale sign is the age of prescription holders, which has fallen to the 20- to 30-year-old range, much younger than the average for those suffering from serious and terminal illness.

The most recent effort is to put the control of medical marijuana outside of the Department of Public Safety and with the Department of Health.

County Prosecutor Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho was present, along with Deputy Prosecutors Jake Delaplane and Sam Jajich, to discuss marijuana legislation and the prescription drug problems.

Delaplane discussed several bills that were introduced recently in an attempt to expand medical marijuana use in the state. He noted that no Kaua‘i legislators have signed on but support for various bills comes from the other islands, including 18 lawmakers from O‘ahu and three from Hawai‘i County.

There are three categories of legislation to support marijuana, said Delaplane. There are bills aimed at loosening the restriction of current laws, weakening enforcement and for decriminalization. Supporters outnumber opposition as much as five to one at hearings, he said, as opponents, other than law enforcement, don’t tend to be as vocal in the process.

“Very few members of the public raised their voice in opposition,” Delaplane said.

420 bills

Senate Bill 58 was designed to loosen medical cannabis restrictions to allow a patient to possess 10 marijuana plants and 5 ounces of pot at any given time. It also prohibited the DPS from requiring a certifying physician as the primary care physician, or to identify the debilitating condition, and to allow caregivers to grow three plants for another patient and to transport without prosecution.

“This is turning from medicinal to commercial,” said Delaplane. Another concern, he added, is allowing the identity of the growth location to remain confidential, denying law enforcement access and encouraging the 420 doctor movement.

He referred to recent advertising in local papers that were essentially 420 doctors looking for patients. When this is happening then it is clear that purpose for marijuana is not about comforting the extremely ill, but about getting around the criminal law for personal use, growing and selling. He said this activity, and more growers, has led to an increase of robberies, break-ins and other crimes normally associated with other drugs.

“When you have an increased availability it is just a fact that there will be an increase in the potential for juvenile use,” Delaplane said. “Juvenile crime relating to medical marijuana is on the rise.”

When asked to give hard numbers to confirm his statement, Delaplane said there’s not enough data, but based on the Prosecutor’s Office observations and feedback from KPD, this type of crime is becoming more common.

“We are seeing these types of crimes become more commonplace, and it will be a statistic that we will begin tracking in the coming year,” he said.

SB 175 hinders law enforcement efforts by transferring the jurisdiction of medical marijuana from the DPS to the DOH, he said. It required DPS to maintain a verification service accessible  24/7 to the DOH.

Delaplane said it would seem to make sense for health officials to deal with both prescriptions and verification. However, he said it does present the potential for unforeseen verification and enforcement problems.

SB 1460 would decriminalize possession of 1 ounce or less by making it a civil offense, rather than a criminal offense, with a fine of $100 or less. It would delete reporting requirements of the Board of Education for students caught in possession of less than 1 ounce, with similar restrictions on reporting for parole violations, and court mandates for substance abuse treatment.

It would exclude possession of 1 ounce or less from possession of a detrimental drug, and would not be considered as a prior offense, said Delaplane.

House Bill 923 would loosen restrictions, create a marijuana sales tax, and three classes of medical licenses. Class I would be a “marijuana compassion center.” Class II would be a “medical marijuana cultivation license,” and Class III would be a “medical marijuana-infused products manufacturing license.”

Delaplane said the bill would allow people to carry permits from their home states and allow temporary permits to visitors. It exempts licenses from some forms of criminal prosecution.

None of the Senate bills made it past March 10, and the House bill stopped Jan. 26.

‘Aunties and uncles’

County statistics show that 72 percent of medical marijuana permits are issued to people under age 40 and without a debilitating disease. He said sample packaging for marijuana-based products have marketing strategies not unlike alcohol and tobacco.

Delaplane said that while these bills typically die in committee they are reintroduced late in the session in a new form and with plenty of supporting testimony.

“We need the aunties and uncles to be calling and writing emails, and submitting testimony that results in a vocal opposition to the bills,” Delaplane said.

The only law enforcement-friendly bill last session was HB 1169, or the Controlled Substances bill, he said. It clarifies the state’s medical use of marijuana law to increase penalties for fraudulent application, and to make laws consistent with penalties for other controlled substances.

Delaplane said it would require physicians seeking a permit to have a physical office on island to see and treat patients before prescribing medical marijuana. It also defines debilitating conditions as a person suffering from a more stringent list of specific illnesses.

“Physicians must sign a statement stating that a patient has a debilitating condition and would benefit from medical marijuana,” he said. “A fraudulent application would result in a class C felony.”

HB 1169 did not make it past Jan. 26 in the Legislature.

Delaplane said he expects the same range of bills this coming legislative session, expected to start in January. He encourages people to pay attention.

Visit capitol.hawaii.gov for more information.

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