Medical marijuana
bill appears stalled

A proposal to transfer a state
program won't be granted
a hearing

A Senate bill to transfer the state medical marijuana program from the Department of Safety to the Department of Health appears stymied this session.

The Senate passed SB 2641, SD2, on a vote of 22 to 1, with Sen. Cal Kawamoto (D, Waipahu) the only opponent.

But Rep. Ken Ito (D, Heeia-Kaneohe), House Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee chairman, said he does not plan to hold a hearing on the bill.

He said both departments strongly oppose the transfer, "and when you get two departments testifying strongly against it, you know there is going to be a veto message" by the governor.

Eight states, including Hawaii, have medical marijuana laws, and the program is in the health department in all other states except Nevada, which has it in the agriculture department, said Pamela Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.

"We're disappointed that Rep. Ito has apparently decided not to hear it, because we think it's clearly a health issue and belongs in the Department of Health," Lichty said.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee reported that it finds legal use of marijuana for therapeutic medicine is a health issue, rather than a public safety issue.

It said the Health Department would allow "severely ill patients better access to compassionate care and a broader range of physician assistance, without compromising the level of oversight." Patients also would be less intimidated registering with the Health Department, the committee report said.

In other states, it said the health departments work with public safety departments to give them access to the patient registry if verification is needed.

Ito said the Health Department does not have funds or enforcement powers to run the program, and the Department of Public Safety feels "they're better equipped and qualified to enforce it."

He said the program should stay in Public Safety "just to be a little on the safe side. ... I think they do an excellent job. As long as we keep it there, we can rest assured a lot of abuses won't occur."

About 1,260 Hawaii patients and 144 caregivers are registered with the Public Safety Department's Narcotics Enforcement Division to use and grow marijuana for medical purposes.

Lichty said the U.S. General Accounting Office looked at the program in Hawaii and three other states a couple years ago and found effects on law enforcement here were negligible because so few people were registered.

She said putting the program in the Health Department would ensure that the issue is dealt with by health experts rather than law enforcement officials.

Health departments in other states put information on a Web site, "whereas Public Safety has done absolutely nothing to inform people who inquire," she said. "They send out a one-page memo with all sorts of warnings. It is intimidating."

She said the 4-year-old program has had few problems. "It is appropriate to make some changes."


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