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Nearly 14 years after the use of medical marijuana was legalized in Hawaii, medical marijuana patients may have a legal way to purchase it, rather than just grow it themselves, within the next few years.

The 21-member group tasked with crafting guidelines for a state-monitored medical marijuana dispensary system is recommending that at least one dispensary be opened in four of the state’s five counties by the start of 2017.

Members of the Hawaii Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force, which was created during the last legislative session and convened shortly afterward, also agreed that state Department of Health officials should offer at least 30 licenses for medical marijuana producers beginning on June 1, 2016.

“I think it’s a very good start for guidelines for legislation, but the legislative process will lead to compromises and discussions,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti, D, Makiki-Manoa, who sat on the task force and chairs the state House Health Committee.

Responses to the recommendations, however, are mixed among medical marijuana dispensary proponents and opponents throughout the state.

Dr. David Barton, who has operated his Hawaiian Pacific Pain and Palliative Care satellite clinic out of the Kauai Design Center in Kapaa for the past five or six years, said he is cautiously optimistic about what legislation may be developed from the recommendations but has noticed that attitudes toward medical marijuana are slowly changing for the better.

“We’re pretty happy, actually,” Barton said. “I think better days are ahead and good people are trying to do good things.”

A medical marijuana patient on Kauai, who asked that her name be withheld, said she would like to see more details hammered out.

“I just quickly read through it, and it seems to be lacking some important information,” she said. “It’s definitely a good start. I would like to see criteria for dispensary owners.”

Theresa Koki, coordinator at the County of Kauai’s anti-drug program Life’s Choices of Kauai, said state lawmakers and officials should “continue to pursue extensive research on marijuana and develop other methods and acceptable routes of administration.”

‘A serious challenge’

At the crux of the longstanding debate on medical marijuana is how to provide the nearly 13,000 qualified and licensed patients in Hawaii with the medicine they need.

State laws approved in 2000 allow for the possession, cultivation, use, distribution and transportation of marijuana for medical purposes, but doesn’t allow for patients to obtain it unless they or their caregivers grow it themselves.

That task, however, is complicated, since the current medical marijuana program, which was transferred to the state Department of Health from the Department of Public Safety last month, neither supplies marijuana seeds or plants nor provides a source or means of obtaining them.

With no other means left to legally obtain the medical marijuana they need, Barton said about 80 percent of his patients purchase marijuana from someone they know. But the danger, he said, is that there is no way to determine the safety of marijuana purchased off the street.

“The department’s concerns at this time are primarily for an accessible and well-managed system that will serve patients in a safe and efficient manner,” State Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo wrote in an email. “Such a system will require sufficient resources, expertise and time to develop and sustain.”

‘A good foundation’

Under recommendations outlined by the task force, state Department of Health officials should determine the number of dispensary licenses based on a guideline of one for every 500 patients, which would be adjusted annually.

These recommendations also allow medical marijuana sold at dispensaries to be subject to the state’s 4 percent general excise tax, Au Belatti said.

“Hopefully, we will come out with a very good policy to make medical marijuana more accessible for patients,” Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa, D, Koloa-Niihau, wrote in an email. “I’m excited about the potential to be able to take out or separate the parts of the plant that will benefit patients without the other affects of marijuana. Other great benefits will be the controlled dosages and the revenue potential for the state.”

Task force members also recommended that department officials create a license-issuing program for medical marijuana production centers, which would only be allowed to distribute medical marijuana to dispensaries or other production centers.

Rep. Derek Kawakami, D, Wailua-Hanalei, said he is pleased task force members “are offering a good foundation of what needs to be accomplished in regards to striking the right balance of compassion for those who are truly in need for this type of treatment and public safety.”

He questions, however, how laws will ensure that employees of medical marijuana dispensaries, producers, and manufacturers are properly trained and retrained.

“I am also hesitant at first glance to give the Department of Health such broad sweeping powers of authority,” Kawakami wrote in an email. “While I have full faith that the department will be diligent in ensuring that any such program will hold public safety paramount, I feel uneasy that should they see fit, they could raise renewal fees to a point that may make it financially impossible for patients to afford treatment.”

Still, some say the current recommendations will serve as a guide that will help craft legislation.

The task force, Au Belatti said, struggled to address a number of specific issues, such as the sale of “edibles,” or food items that contain marijuana, including cookies, brownies and candy. Many of these issues, she said, will most likely be addressed as dispensary bills moves through the state Legislature.

“I think clearly there are tensions about what that system should look like, but I think the challenge is that if you have too few dispensaries, you’re going to have a monopoly on the growth,” Au Belatti said.

Task force member Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said his organization “generally supports the recommendations.”

“We are hopeful and optimistic that the Legislature will pass a dispensary bill this session, giving patients access to physician-recommended medicine without having to rely on the black market,” Gluck wrote in an email.

Even if a program is created and implemented, some marijuana advocates say a dispensary system will only solve some of the existing problems.

“It’s a good start, but it’s not going to meet the needs of all patients because some don’t want to go to a dispensary,” Barton said. “Some want to grow their own and ensure that it is organic or that no chemicals are used in the process.”

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