Next summer Hawaii will debut its first medical marijuana dispensary system. But lawmakers say there are still many issues that need clarification. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.
The medical marijuana business in Hawai‘i was given a closer look Monday afternoon, as lawmakers took the state Department of Health to task during an informational briefing . At issue was the department’s recently released interim rules for the new cannabis system. State senator Roz Baker chairs the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee. She felt some of the rules went beyond the law the legislature passed earlier this year. “I get very frustrated when executive departments establish rules that go beyond what the legislature opined,” said Baker. “The legislature makes policy. The executive branch implements that policy. I would request that you look at those rules very carefully in the areas where you’ve made prohibitions or statements that are inconsistent with and not authorized by the legislature, take them out.”
One of those prohibitions would not allow dispensary operators to grow marijuana in a greenhouse. State Representative Joy San Buenaventura says that exclusion would greatly impact her Puna district. “Agriculture is huge in Puna and Ka‘ū and we rely on greenhouses. To completely exclude greenhouses is to basically completely prevent people from Puna and Ka‘ū to be part of this dispensary production system.”
The exclusion of greenhouses was also an issue for State Senator Russell Ruderman, who represents the rural Big Island districts of Puna and Pāhala in Ka‘ū. “In the state with the best sunlight and the highest cost of electricity,” said Ruderman. “I find it hard to accept the idea that sunlight won’t be allowed as the energy source.”
Hawai‘i has the nation’s highest electricity costs and forcing dispensary grow operators to do business indoors could get expensive. Some advocates worry that cost could get passed down to customers. “Anything that adds cost to the operations of these businesses is going to be passed down to the patients,” said Pam Lichty, the president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai‘i. “In a state with not only the highest electric costs but probably one of the highest percentages of sunny days in the nations, it seems counterintuitive to have it be a fully enclosed, opaque kind of situation.”
Lichty also expressed concern that dispensaries won't be able to carry medical marijuana between islands. “We’re in an island state,” said Lichty. “If we’re trying to provide access to patients, how can we deny them access if they’re on Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i, or even Ni‘ihau.”
Lawmakers also criticized the restrictions on selling baked cannabis goods, smoking paraphernalia, and pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes. “To say that a person can’t sell a joint at a medical marijuana dispensary for a qualified patient who is sick and in need of medicine just sounds illogical and wrong,” said state Senator Will Espero. “It’s like telling the liquor store you can’t sell beer.”
Another potential problem is an unintended tax loophole. House health committee chair Rep. Della Au Bellati explained the way the law is written, dispensaries could be eligible for tax breaks if they set up business in what’s called enterprise zones. Those are areas that can be applied to agriculture and are intended to reward employers who set up in economically depressed districts. “We intended for the GET to apply,” Au Belatti explained at the hearing. “We need to have revenues to be able to pay for this program that is going to cost tremendous resources.”
State Department of Health Director Virginia Pressler said the agency is working with an aggressive timeline, but will consider the recommendations from Monday’s hearing. “We appreciate the input and comments from this meeting and we will take it all under consideration,” said Pressler. “This is a very contentious issue and we’re doing our best to follow statute and not to exceed that in the rules.”
The Department of Health will accept applications in January and then plans to select licensees by mid-April, with dispensaries operating by July.