HONOLULU -- If Hawaii House Speaker Joe Souki has his way, the Aloha State could be next in allowing medicinal marijuana dispensaries.
More than 12,000 residents take advantage of the Hawaii law that allows people to use marijuana for medical reasons, but patients have to grow their own weed.
The state House leader singled out the need for dispensaries during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Hawaii Legislature on Wednesday, calling the lack of places to buy medical marijuana a “gap in the law.”
The law permits patients to grow up to seven marijuana plants, but if they’re bad gardeners, they’re out of luck.
Souki said Hawaii isn’t yet ready to go the route of Colorado and Washington, states which recently legalized the drug for recreational use, but told reporters after Wednesday's ceremony that allowing patients to get marijuana at dispensaries is a “humanitarian” issue.
The speaker is concerned about people who may be in pain, such as patients going through chemotherapy. He said that it is an "anomaly" that the state allows qualified patients to use medical marijuana but does not provide a way for them to obtain the medicine.
According to Marijuana Policy Project, Hawaii is among 20 states plus Washington, D.C., where medical marijuana is legal, most of which are in the Northeast or on the West Coast. The majority of those states allow dispensaries or are in the process of establishing them.
50 Shades of Green
While the House Speaker is pushing the legislation for compassionate reasons, there’s a financial incentive to permit marijuana distribution facilities.
New tax dollars from the dispensaries could help balance Souki’s other proposals to decrease the state’s tax revenue, including sharing more income from the state’s transient accommodations tax with the counties and allowing income tax rates to fall.
In 2011, the city of Oakland, California, raised $1.4 million through taxes on marijuana dispensaries, according to the New York Times.
But if Souki’s proposal is successful, it would also open up a host of other questions about how marijuana distribution facilities will get financing and whether banks would accept their accounts.
The New York Times reported last weekend that in many states, owners of marijuana dispensaries are having difficulty paying taxes and completing other simple business functions because financial institutions are afraid of bankrolling the industry given federal law.
Does It Stand A Chance?
During Wednesday’s opening ceremony, the idea seemed to resonate with audience members — it was one of the few moments in Souki’s address that was met with a few cheers in the packed House chamber.
It's unclear whether the Senate will respond so enthusiastically. Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria said the issue didn't come up during the majority caucus and that he's not sure how the body will vote on the topic.
Last year, hearings in both chambers on bills to decriminalize the drug dragged on for hours as residents gave heated testimony both for and against marijuana use. Much of the opposition came from the law enforcement community.
Michelle Yu, spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department, said the agency couldn’t comment on Souki’s proposal because it hasn’t yet reviewed his bill. But Yu emphasized that the police department is against the medicinal use of marijuana.
Alan Shinn, executive director of the Coalition for a Drug Free Hawaii, opposes the proposal, arguing that dispensaries would help normalize marijuana use and give more traction to efforts to legalize the drug.
Patients who are too sick to grow their own plants should take advantage of a provision in the law that allows caregivers to cultivate marijuana in their stead, he said. They can also use other prescription drugs that have similar palliative effects.
But Pamela Lichty from the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii said the absence of distribution facilities in Hawaii is ridiculous.
“The whole idea [of the medical marijuana law] was to get rid of the black market and help people out who are seriously ill,” she said. “We get people all the time who say, ‘I got my blue card, where do I get it?’ What are we supposed to say, ‘Go to Chinatown’? It’s really a contradiction.”
The lack of dispensaries is particularly frustrating to health care professionals like Wendy Gibson, who said patients are discouraged from joining the medical marijuana program because of the barriers to getting the medicine or end up turning to the black market for the drug.
“I hate turning our patients into criminals,” she said.