Nancy Cook Lauer, West Hawaii Today

Almost half the state’s 13,115 medical marijuana patients live on Hawaii Island, but it took a request by state Sen. Will Espero for a medical marijuana task force to schedule a public hearing here.

Espero, D-Ewa, prevailed upon the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force at its Aug. 12 meeting to include a Hilo meeting in addition to the six scheduled for Oahu. The Hilo public hearing is scheduled for the evening of Sept. 10, at a location to be announced.

That was good news to Andrea Tischler of Hilo, chairwoman of the Big Island chapter of Americans for Safe Access and a medical marijuana patient.

“We do very much want a hearing here,” Tischler said. “I think it’s very important that patients and caregivers and doctors be asked how they would like this dispensary system to come about.”

The task force was created by the Legislature this year to develop recommendations for the establishment of a statewide dispensary system for medical marijuana patients. The 2015 Legislature is expected to consider the recommendations, and if dispensaries are created by law, they would likely be available in 2016, said Tischler.

The Legislature this year also passed a measure transferring oversight of the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health by Jan. 1.

Hawaii’s law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for certain conditions was signed by the governor in 2000, but patients can’t obtain their medicine without growing it themselves, finding someone to register as a caregiver to grow it for them or committing a felony by buying it on the black market.

“There is currently no legal way for patients to obtain medical marijuana, besides growing it themselves. This puts patients who are unable to grow marijuana (due to living situation or physical health) in an extremely difficult situation, because they must break the law in order to procure their medication,” noted Daniel Gluck, an American Civil Liberties Hawaii attorney in testimony supporting HCR 48 that created the task force.

“This resolution is a step toward eliminating the gray area of how to obtain medical marijuana, thus sparing patients from having to resort to the black market,” Gluck added.

Hawaii Island had 5,364 medical marijuana patients in April, compared to 2,969 on Maui, 2,743 on Oahu, 1,856 on Kauai, 181 on Molokai and two on Niihau, according to state Department of Public Safety data. That’s 2.8 percent of Hawaii Island’s population, compared to 0.28 percent of Oahu’s.

In Hawaii, marijuana can be prescribed for these conditions: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, including those characteristic of epilepsy, severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s disease and any other medical condition approved by the state Department of Health.

Severe pain is by far the predominant reason for prescribing marijuana, according to the Department of Public Safety.

The task force is addressing policy, logistics, manufacturing and taxation issues. It will also hear a presentation from Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai and state Narcotics Enforcement Division head Keith Kamita, said Henry Curtis, who covered the last task force meeting in a post on his blog, Ililani.

Curtis said the Hilo meeting “was fully vetted and agreed upon by the task force.”

The 21-member task force includes lawmakers, state agency heads in charge of health, law enforcement, business and taxation, patients, caregivers, physicians, University of Hawaii public policy and agriculture centers and public interest groups such as the ACLU, Hawaii Medical Association, Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii and the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.

“The task force has convened all of the key departments, especially Department of Health, patients and providers together, to figure out the best way to establish medical marijuana dispensaries in Hawaii for our patients,” Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u said.

Medical marijuana patients, caregivers and physicians by island, April 2014

Island Patients Caregivers Physicians % of Patients

Hawaii 5,364 638 55 40.90

Maui 2,969 374 41 22.64

Oahu 2,743 298 56 20.91

Kauai 1,856 297 26 14.15

Molokai 181 22 10 1.38

Niihau 2 0 2 0.02

Total 13,115 1,629 190 100

Source: University of Hawaii Public Policy Center from Department of Public Safety data