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Pot VS. Pills


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Medical marijuana use is on the rise, and several isle lawmakers are getting behind new bills to show support

Several pro-marijuana measures have been introduced in the Hawaii Legislature this year with the backing of Big Island lawmakers.

A renewed effort to transfer the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health received unanimous nods Thursday from the Senate's health and judicial committees. Other proposals would allow medical marijuana users to have more pot and plants, and better protections for doctors who prescribe it to alleviate medical conditions.

Proposals also call for decriminalization of marijuana and for police to focus efforts on more dangerous substances like ice. While other states have moved to legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes and Hawaii's medical marijuana program is in its seventh year, the federal government maintains there is no legal medical use for marijuana, leaving doctors open to federal charges.

The bills have been referred to public safety, health, judiciary, finance and education committees, but most have not yet been given a hearing.

HB 300 and companion SB 905 -- which appear to have the best chance among the measures after SB 905 passed Senate committees with amendments March 1 -- revive provisions that have been attempted in the Legislature for several years. The legislation to transfer the medical marijuana program from the safety to health department says administration would be more effective and that medical marijuana use should be treated as a health issue rather than simply a legal issue.

Certification for medical use of marijuana would last for two years instead of expiring after one year. The laws would also limit doctors to the role of certifying that a patient has a debilitating condition, and that benefits of using the drug outweigh risks. The provision would help insulate doctors who recommend marijuana from federal prosecution. State Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, South Kohala, sponsored the house bill.

"SB 905 is the only marijuana bill that's really alive right now; it's the only one that has had a hearing," Evans said.

Groups like the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii have pushed for years for transferring the program. Evans, who is chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said it makes sense to treat medical marijuana as a health and treatment issue rather than a legal issue.

"I've had medical marijuana users from the Big Island feel they're being harassed, that someone is watching over them, when maybe they should be looking out for other things," Evans said.

The Big Island has the lion's share of the state's medical marijuana patients and caregivers.

"I think we're filling up our jails and courts with small drug offenses," Evans added. "We're getting tough on fraud, theft and burglary and maybe these are the things we should be spending our time on."

She noted that SB 905 has both support and opposition, and was hopeful the legislation would move forward.

"This is the one to watch," she said.

However, since doctors decide who gets medical marijuana and Public Safety merely handles the paperwork, it doesn't matter who oversees the program, said Keith Kamita, administrator of Public Safety's Narcotics Enforcement Division. He added that studies show the program shouldn't be moved.

"Groups try this every year," Kamita said. "As the program is written, both departments would do the same thing. The physician makes the decision."

HB 493 would increase the amount of medical marijuana a patient could possess from one ounce to 24 ounces, the number of allowable mature plants from three to six, and the number of immature pot plants from four to 18. State Reps. Dwight Takamine, D-Kohala, Hamakua, Hilo, and Faye Hanohano, D-Puna, Pahoa, Hawaiian Acres, Kalapana, are co-sponsors of the resolution.

Takamine said he signed on to the bill not because he had strong feelings about the amount of marijuana a patient should have, but because the issue is about ensuring access, often to terminal patients who have no other alternative.

"I feel the legislation is well-intended and, with proper safeguards, that medical marijuana can be used in the manner it was intended," Takamine said.

Takamine cautioned that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholds the federal government's right to prosecute marijuana users regardless of the medical marijuana programs that various states have launched.

"Given the posture the feds have been taking, whether states will still be allowed to use marijuana as medicine is a question," he said.

Hawaii's chief federal prosecutor, Ed Kubo, has called for tougher laws to make sure medical marijuana goes only to those who are qualified for it "to make sure the law is not a farce." Kubo would like to see background checks for suppliers and random inspections of grow operations.

HCR 10, co-sponsored by Takamine, Hanohano and Evans, among lawmakers from other islands, calls on Maui County to develop a program for growing, regulating and taxing marijuana for medical use, allowing licensed farmers to grow enough plants for 200 qualified users. Saying that many Maui residents have no other treatment for painful and debilitating diseases, the resolution also asks the county to direct its police department to "make investigation, citation and arrest for private adult medical marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority."

"Allowing farmers to grow the marijuana would actually put it under more control," Evans said. "Rules, regulations and taxation might be the way to go. I think it's worthy of discussion."

Takamine agreed that the resolution is all about starting a discussion and that he had signed onto the bill to that end, not because he had "any strong desire to address conditions on Maui."

HB 1711 and SB 1296 would change possession of less than one ounce of marijuana from a petty misdemeanor to a civil violation, saying the drug is one of the safest psychoactive substances available, and that users shouldn't have a blot on their record that could affect their ability to get college loans, jobs or enter the military. The bills say that 12 others states which have made the same move haven't seen increased use of the drug. The bills would also take marijuana out the "detrimental drug" category as long as it appears in quantities less than an ounce. Violators would pay an unspecified fine.

Roger Christie, founder of the Hilo-based Hawaii Cannabis Ministry and a cannabis minister, said he's thrilled to see respected, veteran lawmakers behind the legislation, calling the support unusual.

"These are great steps, more positive legislation than I have witnessed in 20 years here," said Christie. "Some of the bills have a host of lawmakers who introduced them, people willing to be named and seen as being in support."

Christie said provisions to allow more marijuana possession by qualified users is important because consistent supplies are hard to find.

Other new bills seek to rein in drug use. They would establish programs allowing drug-sniffing dogs in public schools at the request of principals, and random drug testing for teachers and other DOE employees. The moves would help fight drugs where they can do the most harm, and the use of drug-sniffing dogs has been consistently supported as constitutional by the Hawaii Supreme Court, according to HB 1123.

SB 1139 says the call to test teachers has risen in the wake of allegations of two Hawaii middle school teachers smoking pot before class, and a high school teacher allegedly dealing ice last year. The incidents could point to a pattern of drug abuse among school teachers, according to the bill.

And HB 1645 would require counties to adopt policies where a uniformed officer must respond to each report of drug manufacture, distribution and use.

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald
Author: Bret Yager
Contact: byager@hawaiitribune-herald.com
Copyright: 2007 Hawaii Tribune Herald
Website: Hawaii Tribune-Herald :: Hilo, Hawaii
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