Hawaii is on the verge of allowing medical marijuana to be bought and sold legally.
It’s been 15 years since the state legalized marijuana for medical use, but patients were only allowed to grow it.
To buy marijuana, patients had to go to the black market. A law enforcement official told KHON2 that an ounce of good quality marijuana can be bought on the street for $250 to $400.
On Thursday, May 7, the full House passed House Bill 321, a proposal that would pave the way for eight dispensary licenses throughout the state: three on Oahu, two on Big Island, two on Maui and one on Kauai.
The full Senate had already passed the bill. It now goes to the Governor for his signature, veto or passage without his signature.
Each license would allow for two dispensaries and two production sites for up to 16 of each.
The state Department of Health would accept applications for licenses between Jan. 11-29, 2016 with a $5,000 non-refundable application fee.
Awardees would be announced on April 15, 2016 and dispensaries could open for business in July 15, 2016.
Dispensaries would also be required to pay $75,000 for a license and $50,000 annually to renew it.
The bill closely aligns with recommendations of a task force commissioned by a House Concurrent Resolution authored last year by House Health Committee Chair Rep. Della Au Belatti, D-Makiki, Tantalus, Papakolea, McCully, Pawaa, Manoa.
“This is legislation that is much needed. It has been needed for the past 15 years,” she said. “We’re closing the loop in addressing patient needs in a very responsible way.”
But that’s not how law enforcement sees this measure.
City prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro told KHON2 “allowing distribution of marijuana without stringent safeguards could encourage criminal elements and jeopardize public safety.”
The latest version of the bill includes a provision restricting the location of either a medical marijuana production facility or a dispensary. They will not be allowed within 750 feet of a school, playground or public housing project.
Each production facility is limited to 3,000 plants.
It also appears the dispensaries and production facilities will strictly be a cash business.
Edward Pei, executive director of the Hawaii Bankers Association told KHON2:
“If the Legislature passes a bill this year to legalize medical marijjuana dispensaries in Hawaii, these businesses will not find a bank that can accommodate their transactional needs. Although the activity may be considered legal in the State, Federal statutes still consider marijuana an illegal substance. Banks are prohibited by Federal laws from providing financial services to entities manufacturing and selling illegal substances. In the other 23 states where medical or recreational marijuana dispensaries are legal, these businesses have to deal exclusively in cash, as financial institutions are not able to accommodate them. They accept only cash for products sold, and have to pay all their bills with cash.”
There is also the concern that this is the first step toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
“I’m certain that my organization and many advocates will push for legalization in the years to come,” said Rafael Kennedy, spokesperson for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. “But this is a separate step. This is getting the patients the medicine they need.”
In response, Belatti said, “This is about the patients and setting up a dispensary system that is well-regulated.”
Sen. Will Espero, D, Ewa Beach, Ewa by Gentry, Iroquois Point, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, said, “Patients that are getting their medical marijuana now are getting it from the black market. It is not tested. We don’t have quality controls. This improves the current system.”
State lawmakers were also quick to add that they will address concerns of federal authorities when it comes to distribution, access and record-keeping.
Their proposal refers to the so-called Cole memorandum, which was written by Deputy Attorney general James Cole and sent to all U.S. Attorneys General in 2013, outlining how the U.S. Attorney’s office views laws adopted by state to allow for the use of medical marijuana.