Put Medicinal Pot in Health Department

March 23, 2004

EDITORIAL, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Acceptance of marijuana as an effective medicine for easing pain from numerous diseases is increasing, but Hawaii remains the only state where the program facilitating its medicinal use is directed by a law enforcement agency. The state Senate has approved a bill to move its administration to the Department of Health, where it belongs, and the change should be embraced by the House and the Lingle administration. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is fiercely opposed to medicinal marijuana, but his arguments have been rejected at every turn. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused in the past six months to overturn two rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Hawaii, that protect doctors who recommend marijuana and their patients from prosecution for violation of federal drug laws.

Marijuana has been shown to be effective in easing pain for sufferers of AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses. Hawaii is among eight states that allow use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The programs are administered by health departments in six of the states, by the agriculture department in Nevada and by the Narcotics Enforcement Division in Hawaii's Department of Public Safety.

'It's terribly intimidating,' says Pamela Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. 'The mandate of the Narcotics Enforcement Division is to enforce the narcotics law and to prevent people from obtaining and using schedule (illegal) substances.'

Rep. Ken Ito, chairman of the House Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, says he has no plans to hold a hearing on the Senate-passed bill because of opposition by the Lingle administration, through the directors of the affected departments. Ito said the Department of Public Safety feels 'they're better equipped and qualified to enforce it,' and the Department of Health lacks the funds or enforcement powers, so Gov. Lingle probably would veto the bill.

Such opposition is simplistic. In other states, departments of health 'work in conjunction with their departments of public safety, allowing access to the patient registry if verification becomes necessary,' the Senate Ways and Means Committee noted. Nothing is complicated about a patient showing a certificate from the Department of Health to a police officer to justify possession of marijuana.

The Senate-passed bill also would require that the doctor who recommends medicinal marijuana has examined and assessed the patient's medical history. Current law allows a doctor to simply examine medical records before certifying that the patient has a debilitating condition warranting medical use of marijuana.

The judgment about whether a physician has met even the current requirement is in the hands of a narcotics enforcer rather than a health expert. That anomaly should be enough to make clear that administration of the program belongs in the Department of Health.




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