Federal officials ask state to tighten medical marijuana law

January 31, 2007

, Associated Press

HONOLULU -- Federal officials want the state to conduct background checks on those certified to supply medical marijuana to patients, saying the state must close loopholes being exploited by drug dealers.

Ed Kubo, chief federal prosecutor for Hawaii, said the December indictment of Richard Velasco, a 49-year-old accused drug dealer from the Big Island, is an example of why the state needs to strengthen oversight of its medical marijuana program.

Velasco was awarded a medical marijuana caregiver certificate in December 2004, just months after Hawaii County police officers discovered 246 marijuana plants growing on his property. He was arrested for drug trafficking.

"There needs to be adequate procedures in place to allow for background checks, inspections, monitoring and reviews so that this law is not a farce," Kubo said.

The state Department of Public Safety should also be required to perform random inspections of the caregiver's plant-growing operation, he added.

"After all, we regulate liquor licenses by unannounced inspections and monitoring, and liquor is legal," Kubo said.

Those with drug or felony convictions should also be prohibited from acting as medical marijuana caregivers.

"We're not interested in investigating the sick and the dying," said Anthony D. Williams, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Honolulu district office. "But we will continue to investigate and pursue anyone cultivating and distributing marijuana."

Hawaii became the eighth state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes in 2000. There are currently 249 licensed caregivers and 2,609 medical marijuana patients in the state.

Velasco, of Fern Acres, has five criminal convictions. He was arrested Jan. 16 and is in custody at the Federal Detention Center. His trial is set for March 20 in front of U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway.

He was indicted Dec. 21 on two counts of "knowingly and intentionally manufacturing marijuana, to wit: the cultivation of 100 or more marijuana plants," according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court.

Because Velasco has a felony drug conviction, he faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in jail and up to life in prison if convicted, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

As a caregiver, Velasco had a certificate allowing him to have up to three mature, flowering marijuana plants, four immature plants and an ounce of usable marijuana for each mature plant.

The certificate must be renewed each year and permits the holder to grow and cultivate marijuana for one patient.

The unidentified medical marijuana patient in Velasco's care terminated his relationship with Velasco following the arrest.

State Rep. John Mizuno, vice chairman of the House Health Committee, said his panel would likely consider the issue if the Public Safety Department or U.S. Attorney's Office proposed language for legislation.

"We have to try and ensure the safety of our kupuna and our disabled population," Mizuno said. "We would definitely support something that makes it possible to do background checks to weed out these bad apples."



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