The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: HB321 (Medical Marijuana Dispensaries)

( Bill Status | Bill Text | Hearing Notice | Draft Testimony )

With 21 introducers in the House and 20 in the Senate, it is apparent that medical marijuana dispensaries are a done deal. The question now is not whether the dispensary bills will pass, but more what these bills will look like.

This places people of faith who reject the use of marijuana for recreational or even medicinal purposes in a rather precarious position. While the easy answer is complete opposition, it is important for people of faith to take a seat at the table (when offered one) and be part of discussion. It is difficult, but possible to oppose a bill and still be part of the discussion.

If a person of faith were forced to choose the lesser of two evils, it would be HB321. Its companion bill (SB1302) was never fixed when it left its first committee and is so full of flaws and holes that senators are scrambling to patch it up both to save face and to possibly control the discussion on dispensaries.

The Good

Credit where it is due, House Health Chair Della Belatti worked diligently and tirelessly to incorporate all of the feedback from critics of the original bill. Belatti’s efforts not just to pass a bill, but to try to pass a good bill do not go unrecognized.  There is a big difference between just passing a bill and passing a good bill.

Here is a short list of the changes that Belatti made to HB321:

  • Expanded the definition of schools to prevent marijuana dispensaries and production centers from setting up shop near a private school or preschool. Increased the distance from 500 to 750 feet.
  • Limited manufactured marijuana products to capsules, lozenges, oils and pills. No more marijuana-laced brownies.
  • Limits dosage of THC (the major psychoactive chemical in marijuana) in manufactured marijuana products to ten milligrams.
  • Cradle-to-grave tracking of marijuana plants will help to prevent the improper diversion of marijuana for non-medical (recreational) purposes. Medical marijuana should only be for medical use.
  • Restricts medicinal users to four ounces in any fifteen days period or eight ounces across a thirty day period.
  • Attempts to prevent medicinal users from obtaining their allotment at multiple dispensaries.

The Bad

Does not create a patient/purchase database: There are certain areas where the changes could and should have gone much further. There is no tracking system for different dispensaries to report into when a medicinal user purchases a certain quantity. No mechanism (other than the “honor policy”) exists to prevent a user from obtaining four ounces at a dispensary in Kakaako and then driving twenty minutes to Aiea to obtain another four ounces. As far as both dispensaries are concerned they complied with the law. There are two solutions: (1) bind medicinal users to a single dispensary, or (2) create a statewide reporting system.

System funds not self-sustaining: The lack of a tracking system does not just present a problem for law enforcement, but also creates a funding problem. HB321 creates a special fund for marijuana dispensaries and production centers so that the program funds itself based on application fees. The House Committee on Health notes in its committee report:

Your Committees, however, have concerns that the revenues generated may not be sufficient to sustain a regulated system of medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers.  Accordingly, your Committees respectfully request that the Committee on Finance also consider whether other financing options, such as additional fee structures or taxing methodologies, are necessary to ensure that regulation of the system of medical marijuana dispensaries and production centers is self-sustaining.

Fees can and should be assessed based on whether you use the system of dispensaries and production centers, and how much you utilize it. Taxpayers and non-users should not have to finance a penny for a system that they morally and/or ethically object to.

The Ugly

Home-grown marijuana still unenforceable: HB321 intends to continue to allow medicinal users to home-grow their own marijuana, so long as they comply with the statutory limit (currently set at seven plants and four usable ounces). While limits exist in law, there is no enforcement program. There is no representative from the Department of Health (who now manages the medical marijuana program) to check that you have no more than seven plants. Without any enforcement, there is nothing stopping a user from having more than the allotted seven plants or four ounces of usable marijuana.

While marijuana is tracked every step of the way in the dispensary system, there is no tracking or enforcement of marijuana in the home grow system. Perhaps it is time to do away with home grow completely to improve oversight and enforcement for the benefit of both users and non-users alike. With the dispensaries and production centers that HB321 would provide, there is no need to allow home grown marijuana.

County Zoning Authority: The proposed system takes away county zoning authority on dispensaries and production centers. The bill is quite clear about this:

Neither this section nor any other law, county ordinance, or rule shall prohibit the use of land for medical marijuana production centers or dispensaries established and licensed pursuant to part ___ of chapter 321.

The counties who hold zoning authority would be helpless to prohibit a dispensary or production center from setting up next door to you home.  The last time the state tried to take away county zoning authority (PLDC, the Public Land Development Corporation), it did not work out well for them.  The same legislators that created and then repealed the PLDC are itching to make the same mistake again.

Big Tobacco: Much of the big push to legalize both recreational and medicinal marijuana comes from big tobacco companies. Seeing red and declining sales, these companies are looking for new markets to get into. These corporations have no concern for the health, safety or well-being of the community – just look at how long it took for them to acknowledge the health effects and the addictiveness of cigarettes. There should be a provision to keep the system in the hands of local individuals and companies who are already vested members of the community.

Rewards potency: The current system of tracking via “usable ounces” is flawed because the amount of THC (the psychoactive chemical component of marijuana) in four ounces of one strain of marijuana is not the same as four ounces of another strain. Across a fifteen year study (1993 to 2008), THC concentrations in marijuana more than doubled. This was summarized appropriately by SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana):

…the attitude of “if Grandma can do it, it must be safe,” is just one part of the argument cited by those opposing legalization, who say today’s pot is far more potent than the leaves Cheech and Chong rolled up in to blunts decades back.

A limit on usable weight does not address the real problem with marijuana – the THC content. HB321 currently requires dispensaries and production centers to know and control for the amount of THC in their products. With this information already at their fingertips, it is only logical that the dosage of THC is limited.

In conclusion

None of these comments or critiques should be construed as this blog supporting any state-sanctioned system of marijuana distribution. However, people of faith are left with a choice between two evils. If we check out and choose neither of the evils, someone else will.

How much do you trust that person to make the best choice – especially when that person thinks that marijuana is harmless?

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