Several medical marijuana bills considered

Several bills being considered by the state Legislature aim to make things easier for people in the state’s medical marijuana program, but Big Island police have a few concerns.

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Several bills being considered by the state Legislature aim to make things easier for people in the state’s medical marijuana program, but Big Island police have a few concerns.

Senate Bill 2523, introduced by Puna Democrat Sen. Russell Ruderman, as originally written would allow open-air growing operations, greenhouses and shade houses to serve as medical marijuana production centers — so long as operations aren’t visible to the outside.

The idea, Ruderman said, is for plants to grow under natural sunlight “as they’ve evolved to do,” rather than indoors under artificial lamps. The bill was amended Thursday to nix open-air growing, and would now take effect starting in 2017, rather than this year.

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill to establish the first system of medical marijuana dispensaries in Hawaii. Under the law, the Department of Health can award up to eight dispensary licenses — up to two production centers and two retail dispensing sites per location. The department received 66 applications for licenses last month, and will announce selections April 15.

The Big Island was awarded two licenses. Those selected can start operating July 15.

Currently, the statute mandates all dispensary facilities — both production centers and retail dispensing locations — must be enclosed and indoors. Ruderman believes that’s too restrictive. He said evidence shows marijuana plants grow differently under artificial lights. Indoor growing also would increase operating costs, he said, which could further drive prices up for the patient.

“Plants should be grown in sunlight, especially in the state which has the most,” he said.

Local police, however, worry grow operations that aren’t indoors could be an issue for people in close proximity. The original dispensary law did not give counties jurisdiction over where centers could be located, said Maj. Samuel Thomas, and cannabis has “a pungent odor” even if it’s technically out of sight.

“Those types of phone calls make their way to police and we’d really be limited in what we could do in that situation,” he said.

Another measure, House Bill 1829 introduced by Maui Democrat Joseph Souki, would repeal penalties pertaining to certain medical marijuana prohibitions, and amend certain penalties to make them more on par with alcohol prohibitions. The bill would change penalty for fraudulently obtaining medical marijuana from a class C felony to a petty misdemeanor. It would similarly lower the offense — from a class C felony to a misdemeanor — for someone who knowingly distributes medical cannabis to a non-patient minor. The bill passed its second reading this week.

“We’re trying to treat (medical marijuana) more like prescription drugs,” said Rep. Karl Rhoads, an Oahu Democrat who co-signed the bill.

Thomas worries the bill — among other “sidebar” marijuana bills — are more about “a movement toward legalization” rather than providing access to patients, he said, as was first argued by proponents of establishing a dispensary system.

“Marijuana carries with it, a bunch of precautions that need to be taken into account,” he said. “People that use marijuana are ingesting a drug that has hallucinogenic effects. So we need to be very cautious about opening those flood gates.”

Two other medical marijuana-related bills advanced last week:

— Senate Bill 2176, introduced by Oahu Democrat Sen. Will Espero, would establish a medical marijuana oversight commission within the Department of Health. The commission would evaluate areas such as the effectiveness of registered dispensaries in meeting the needs of patients and caregivers, sufficiency of regulatory safeguards and its program’s overall usefulness. The bill passed a second reading with amendments Wednesday.

— Senate Bill 2384, introduced by Maui Democrat Rosalyn Baker, also passed a second reading Wednesday. It would require the state’s Department of Health to conduct unannounced visits and re-licensing inspections of facilities including dispensaries.

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Thomas applauded that measure.

“From a law enforcement perspective, that’s probably a very good idea to ensure they’re following all the rules and regulations,” he said.

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