Medical Marijuana: Hawaii Authorizes Dispensaries To Open, Nurses Allowed To Certify Patients

John Houck

Medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii for 16 years. However, the law never established a definitive dispensary system to distribute cannabis to patients.

In 2015, lawmakers in the state passed a bill creating Hawaii's first dispensary system, and on Monday, Governor David Ige signed it. Prior to House Bill 2707, patients had to grow cannabis themselves or obtain it from a caregiver. The new legislation will close several gaps in the current law and make it easier for people to get medical marijuana.

Under the new medical marijuana dispensary law, advanced practice registered nurses will be authorized to certify patients to receive the treatment. State statistics show nearly 90 percent of medical cannabis certifications are provided by only 10 doctors.

"It's high time that this bill came into effect," said Wailua Brandman, a nurse practitioner. "I have patients that have been using marijuana, not legally, because they don't have the diagnosis yet... but the medication is working for them, and they keep asking me, can they get a card?"

Another update is the removal of a rule that required patients and caregivers undergo background checks before entering a dispensary. In addition, patients who use marijuana legally will not be charged with a crime if caught with drug paraphernalia.

The new law permits up to 3,000 plants per dispensary. For a marijuana plant to make the grade, it must be a minimum of 12-inches high and 12-inches wide. Some legal experts interpret this to mean a dispensary can have an infinite number of smaller plants and seedlings, possibly opening the door for more diverse varieties and faster turnover.

The legislation expands the list of legal marijuana products, including transdermal skin patches and inhalers. While patients cannot buy marijuana cigarettes, they can get raw bud at dispensaries and roll their own. Advocates of medical weed are calling on legislators to loosen the law to allow edible products.

A "legislative oversight working group" will be formed to find ways to improve Hawaii's dispensary system. State lawmakers, industry representatives, a doctor, a caregiver, a registered nurse, law enforcement officials, and several patients will be members of the committee.

Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism will be tasked with keeping track of data about dispensaries and the medical marijuana program. This collected information will include the amount of weed grown and sold. Also recorded will be pricing and a grower's location.

Transportation of cannabis between islands will be allowed, but only for testing purposes. This was included for dispensaries located on islands without testing facilities. The University of Hawaii plans to open its own marijuana testing and research laboratory.

"Our concern is when it gets into the hands of the person it's not intended to," said Major Samuel Thomas of the Hawaii Police Department. "So we just hope it will be used as it has intended to be used."

Dispensaries in Hawaii can legally open on Friday, but most are not ready. Richard Ha, CEO of Lau Ola, plans to open a facility on the Big Island. He thinks the earliest it will open is next year. According to his estimate, the soonest any dispensary can "realistically" open will be January, or possibly later.

"We have to build the facility and grow the plants and then develop everything before you can sell," Ha said.

Hawaii's Department of Health has granted eight licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries so far. One license allows two production centers and two retail locations per licensee.

[Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]