Reforming weed’s rules

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at a loophole in the medical marijuana industry that allows patients to possess and use the substance in Hawaii, but not obtain it unless they grow it themselves.

Today, 23 states nationwide have created medical marijuana programs. However, many of them, including Hawaii, walk on a thin line that is not always clear.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, in an August 2013 memo sent to all United States attorneys, explained that the federal government has traditionally relied on states and local law enforcement agencies to enforce their own narcotics laws.

There is an expectation that state and local governments “will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests.”

The goal is to prevent marijuana from leaving state-regulated systems, prohibit marijuana access to minors and replace “an illicit marijuana trade that funds criminal enterprises with a tightly regulated market in which revenues are tracked and accounted for.”

A failure to do so, he said, may prompt the federal government “to challenge the regulatory structure itself in addition to continuing to bring individual enforcement actions, including criminal prosecutions, focused on those harms.”

Hawaii, in particular, faces a very unique challenge, according to the Legislative and Reference Bureau report on medical marijuana and dispensary options, which was released recently.

Federal law does not allow for the interstate transportation of medical marijuana, or the passage of it through security checkpoints at airports.

The channels between the state’s major islands, according to the report, are recognized as international waters, so “travel by air or sea between those islands constitutes interstate travel even though the destinations are within a single state.”

“The potential for federal prosecution of Hawaii qualified patients traveling inter-island who possess medical marijuana underscores the need for any medical marijuana dispensing strategy developed by the state … to recognize and address this concern,” the report read.

County of Kauai Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar said his department is primarily concerned about two main areas — dispensaries and impaired driving.

He said retail marijuana stores, like those in Colorado, where recreational and medical use is legal, “would not be a good fit for our community until and unless sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that marijuana stays out of the hands of children who do not have the maturity to make that kind of decision.”

“Law enforcement has a well-developed toolbox for detecting and dealing with alcohol-impaired driving, but the technology to quickly and effectively detect marijuana-impaired drivers is still on the way,” Kollar wrote in an email. “Our priority, as always, is reducing the incidence of avoidable deaths and injuries on our roadways.”

A hazy future

While the recent report provides guidance for a Medical Marijuana Dispensary System Task Force to craft recommendations for state lawmakers, some say there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“While there are some general similarities, there are many differences as well among the various states’ medical marijuana programs,” the report reads. “There does not appear to be any one model that can be touted as an exemplary program that all states should follow.”

Wilcox Memorial Hospital and Kauai Medical Clinic do not issue certification forms for people to get medical marijuana licenses, a spokeswoman there said. Missy Keyes-Saiki from Hawaii Health Systems Corporation said they leave it up to their physicians to decide whether they would like to issue medical marijuana certification forms for their patients.

Rep. Derek Kawakami, who is up for re-election this year in District 14, said he would like to explore whether medical marijuana can be regulated and enforced by a commission like alcohol.

“I feel like there are some similarities as regulating medicinal marijuana because you need to have tight controls and enforcement, but you also need to have fines and penalties,” Kawakami said. “Of course, the other side is those places that are going to be dispensing it need to properly train employees. In the private sector, we are required to carry a card as employers to be able to distribute alcohol, so there are many checks and balances at that end of the spectrum.”

Revenues by taxes attached to medical marijuana sales, he added, should be earmarked for educational purposes “to prevent drug abuse in the first place, which I feel is most productive at the school-aged level,” and to individual counties for public safety efforts.

“If we’re going to take a serious look at it, we have to be very specific about where the money is going to go,” Kawakami said.

But not everyone is on board.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the Hawaii medical marijuana law needs to be improved; however, I’m not sure that a clinic or dispensary will solve our problems,” Theresa Koki, coordinator for Life’s Choices Kauai, a county-funded anti-drug program, said. “In fact, it might contribute to additional problems.”

Victoria “Vickie” Franks, the Republican challenging Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa in the general election for her House seat, said she “has difficulty supporting inhalation of smoke in any form.”

Franks said she’s particularly concerned because marijuana has not received the federal government’s stamp of approval and could open the doors to harsher drugs for medicinal and recreational users.

“Having worked with drug addicts, and since it doesn’t cure anything, I find no reason to open a door of abuse when pills are available and when the entire plant is not approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration),” Franks wrote in an email. “Also, since there have been many reported abuses where minors have acquired marijuana cigarettes supposedly grown for medicinal uses, it would be idiotic to assume the same isn’t already happening here in Hawaii.”

Dr. David Barton, who runs a Medical Marijuana of Hawaii office in Kapaa, and Dr. Kevin Baiko, who runs Hawaii Compassionate Care in Kapaa, could not be reached from comment.

The next Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force meeting is slated for 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Hawaii State Capitol Auditorium in Honolulu.

Written comments on this issue can be sent to the state task force at: HCR48testimony@gmail.com.

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