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Advocates seek safe access to marijuana

The marijuana dispensary bill submitted this session by state Sen. Russell Ruderman is Senate Bill 2942.

PAHOA — The president of the Drug Policy Action Group told about 75 people at a “talk story” session about medical marijuana on Sunday that it is “a very exciting time to be involved with” marijuana activism.

“The movement is happening,” Pamela Lichty told those in attendance, most of whom appeared to be 50 or older. Lichty referred to a statement by President Barack Obama that marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s promise to loosen laws to make it easier for banks to do business with legal marijuana sellers in Colorado.

“That having been said, most of you are well aware that Hawaii’s medical marijuana program, started in 2000, has problems,” Lichty told those in attendance.

Neither the Tribune-Herald nor members of the public was allowed to photograph or electronically record the meeting at the Pahoa Neighborhood Center. Kit Grant, director of outreach for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said that was to protect the privacy of medical marijuana cardholders. She noted the presence of the Tribune-Herald and warned those in attendance that law enforcement might have an unannounced presence there.

One of the subjects was the transfer of the state’s medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety’s Narcotics Enforcement Division to the state Department of Health on Jan. 1, 2015. Tim McCormick of DOH said that the change will be a good one for so-called “blue card” holders and that DOH is “dedicated to running this as a public health program.”

“We have a lot of experience working with physicians,” he said. “We have a lot of experience working with patients and making sure that patients have access to their medication. We also have a lot of experience dealing with patients’ confidentiality.”

One individual brought up a confidentiality breach by NED several years ago when the names of medical marijuana cardholders and the physicians who issued their cards were given to the Tribune-Herald in response to a request for the numbers of cardholders. The T-H did not publish the list.

“I can tell you that will not happen under the Department of Health,” McCormick said. “They won’t have access to the medical marijuana information. Other divisions in the Department of Health won’t have access to medical marijuana information.”

Marijuana activist Mike Ruggles asked if DOH will have gun-toting agents as NED and numerous other agencies involved in drug task forces do.

“The Department of Health is not going to have any enforcement function,” McCormick replied. “… If someone thinks you’re illegally smoking or growing marijuana, they can still call the police.”

Grant said there is “nothing in the transfer of the medical marijuana program that keeps law enforcement from accessing the medical marijuana registry database.”

McCormick said that the department is hoping to have a medical marijuana supervisor hired “within a couple of months” and is working on its administrative rules for the program.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman of Puna, who was present for part of the meeting, said he was “pleased with the change of moving it to the Department of Health.” He said he thought moving the program from NED, a law enforcement agency, to DOH would help the state “to get away from some of these abuses … of treating medical marijuana patients as criminals, or associated with criminals.”

Of the 20 bills pertaining to marijuana introduced this legislative session, five pertain to the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries. One was introduced by Ruderman, who said that his Senate Bill 2429 is “not scheduled yet for a hearing.”

“Introducing a bill is a very easy first step. Getting it passed is a very hard process,” he said. Ruderman added that the bill has been referred to the Health Committee, chaired by Sen. Josh Green of Kona, and the Consumer Protection Committee, chaired by Sen. Rosalyn Baker of Maui.

“I’m not the least bit attached to my own bill,” Ruderman said. “If there’s a better one, I’ll support it.”

Ruderman said that bills have also been introduced to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and for the industrial production of marijuana, which got a round of applause from attendees.

Andrea Tischler, Big Island chairwoman of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, complained that the dispensary bills appeared from nowhere without public input and noted that half of the state’s 12,000 medical marijuana cardholders are on Hawaii Island.

“What we really need is to be included in the process,” she said. “We could probably write a better bill than any set of think-tank lawyers on Oahu. … We have a unique community of more than 6,000 medical marijuana patients here on the Big Island. We don’t have any say in anything.”

One attendee said that a provision written by Green and passed into law last session that looks to put so-called “pot doctors” out of the business of writing medical marijuana cards by requiring that cards be written by patients’ primary care physicians should be repealed. He noted that Kaiser Permanente and the Veterans Administration don’t allow their doctors to authorize blue cards, and said other physicians are intimidated by law enforcement from doing so.

Ruderman replied that he has a good rapport with Green and would talk to him.

Lichty said it’s time that Hawaii allow dispensaries, noting that of the 20 states with medical marijuana laws, “almost every one” has a dispensary law. She also said that it’s time for Hawaii to make reciprocity agreements with other states who have medical marijuana laws.

“If you have a card in good standing from another state, you should be able to use it here. That makes sense in a state that has as many visitors as we do,” she said.

Lichty said the House of Representatives has been the hold-up in the past, but Ruderman noted that House Speaker Joe Souki said in his opening remarks this legislative session that it’s time for the state to establish dispensaries for humanitarian reasons.

“Our speaker, who is 80 years old and has a lot of power, said that this is important,” he said.

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