by Peter Sur, (Source:West Hawaii Today)

28 Jun 2008

HILO -- The state law regulating the medical use of marijuana is fatally flawed, according to patient advocates, but a bill that might improve it faces a potential veto.

Gov. Linda Lingle announced Tuesday that among the 52 bills she is considering vetoing is one that would create a medical marijuana task force to consider improvements to the law and also study the feasibility of developing safe growing facilities on six Hawaiian islands. The final veto list will be announced by July 8.

A brief summary of Lingle's objection to the bill stated that the task force would "study ways to cultivate and transport medical marijuana, contrary to federal prohibitions against cultivation, possession and transportation of this federally prohibited drug."

Prosecuting Attorney Jay T. Kimura, Police Chief Lawrence K. Mahuna and Department of Public Safety Clayton A. Frank all testified against this bill when it was before the Legislature.

"The idea that the state will potentially be involved in the production of a Schedule 1 drug, illegal under federal law, is interesting because there are many other areas of need in the state," Kimura said in his testimony.

Added Mahuna in February: "The message could be interpreted as the state of Hawaii Legislature providing funding for research into legalizing drug trafficking within the state."

Yet the law is silent on how medical marijuana users acquire their plants, making potential lawbreakers out of the 4,200 Hawaii residents who are licensed to use medical marijuana.

Of those 4,200 people, 2,640 of them live on the Big Island, according to a database that the Department of Public Safety provided to Stephens Media on Tuesday that lists the name of each patient, the location of their marijuana plants, license information and the names of their physicians.

The Big Island has 13 percent of the state's population but 63 percent of the licenses, the database shows.

A small number of doctors are responsible for most of the marijuana licenses issued. Topping them all is James Berg, of Hawi, who by himself has issued current licenses to 1,822 patients, 1,767 of whom live on the Big Island. Two out of every five medical marijuana patients in the state have received a license from him.

The physician who's issued the second-most number of licenses for Big Island residents is Dr. Yvonne Conner, whose office is in Hilo. The DPS database counts 389 marijuana patients under Conner's care, all except nine on the Big Island.

Under existing law, patients applying for medical marijuana must be diagnosed with either cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, cachexia ( a wasting syndrome ), severe pain, severe nausea, seizures or severe muscle spasms.

"I follow these criteria," Conner said in her office last week. "If they qualify, I say 'OK,' they can be given an appointment, and come in."

If a physician is unwilling to help a patient apply for a certificate, that doctor can refer the patient to other physicians like Conner.

"I get their medical records, and I review them before I even give them an appointment," Conner said of patients who aren't her own.

The patient fills out a five-page application indicating that he understands the restrictions of the medical marijuana law. The applications are sent to the Department of Public Safety's Narcotics Enforcement Division, which oversees the medical marijuana program, along with a $25 registration fee.

"Within six weeks a card comes, a blue card," she said. This card, valid for one year, allows the patient to possess no more than three mature marijuana plants, four immature plants and one ounce of usable marijuana for each mature plant.

When physicians and patients follow the law, they are protected from criminal prosecution by the state, although the law gives them no protection from federal statutes.

Conner doesn't see the marijuana plants that her patients use, since there's no legal place to get them.

That troubles people like Matthew Brittain, a licensed clinical social worker in Hilo. He helps patients prepare the medical records to bring to their physicians.

Brittain is working with four doctors and is in negotiations with three others, and is looking to expand to Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Reno, Nev.

Brittain once worked with the late Dr. William Wenner, an early proponent of medical marijuana. When Wenner died, Brittain saw that "hundreds and hundreds of ( Wenner's ) patients" needed help in filling out the paperwork.

"Their doctors don't want to be bothered with all this paperwork," Brittain said, and saw an opportunity.

"Over the years that I've been doing this, I've been helping probably 8( 00 ) or 900 patients get certified," he said.

Both Conner and Brittain talked at length about the benefits of medical marijuana, and Brittain said the government's enforcement of the law made no sense.

"The way the law is set up, there's no way to get seeds or starters," Brittain said, calling it an "inherent flaw in the program.

"To even get started, a medical marijuana patient has to break the law," he said.

Of the 12 states that allow for medical marijuana, only two provide a "sensible" way of doing it, Brittain said. In New Mexico, the state government grows it. In California, it's grown and distributed by co-ops. Brittain favors the California model.

NORML.ORG US HI: Big Island Big On Medical Marijuana