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Difficulty lingers with medical marijuana


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POSTED: Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of two California counties' objections to the state's medical marijuana law removes barriers to systems there and in 12 other states with similar laws. A task force approved by this year's Hawaii Legislature should examine ways to make the program effective.

After the Bush administration raided medical dispensaries in California, the high court ruled in 2005 that the federal government could prosecute medical users of marijuana for violating federal drug laws despite state laws permitting that use. However, Attorney General Eric Holder said two months ago that the Obama administration would not interfere with states' medical marijuana laws.

The Supreme Court, without comment, rejected appeals yesterday by two California counties that objected to the state law and claimed that it should be struck down as violating the federal law. The high court let stand a decision by an appellate state court ruling that the federal law did not render the state law void.

Unfortunately, Hawaii Public Safety Director Clayton A. Frank, whose agency administers the state's medical marijuana system, has insisted on adhering to the federal law. Several of the task force's functions “;seem to be aimed at ways to circumvent federal law,”; he testified to legislators.

“;The use of marijuana, even medical marijuana, is still illegal under federal law,”; Frank insisted more than two weeks after Holder stated the Justice Department's hands-off policy. “;Until that law is changed, it is inappropriate for the state of Hawaii law enforcement agencies to recommend ways to maintain, transport or increase the use of marijuana.”;

Since Hawaii legalized marijuana for medical purposes nine years ago, more than 1,000 residents have registered with Frank's office to use marijuana for easing pain from such diseases as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. Patients must be certified by a doctor and are limited by the amount of marijuana they may possess.

However, patients in need of it have been “;dismayed at the thought that they must go to the criminal market”; to obtain it, said Jeanne Y. Ohta, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. Patients commonly have experienced difficulty in finding a physician or caregiver.

A 13-member task force approved by legislators is to examine and report by the end of August on issues and obstacles encountered by patients and by law-enforcement agencies in the medical marijuana program and compare Hawaii's program with those in other states.

An obvious change would be to place the program under the Department of Health. The Public Safety Department should not administer a program that its director abhors as illegal, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene.