Pubdate: Mon, 29 Jul 2002
Source: Honolulu Advertiser (HI)
Copyright: 2002 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Author: Timothy Hurley
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Note: For more on medical cannabis and cannabis eradication in Hawaii go to


When Hawai'i became the first state to enact a medical marijuana law,
legislators were praised for their progressive stance on a highly
controversial issue.

But two years later, the state's Medical Marijuana Program has yet to
realize its full potential.

Criticized by mainstream doctors, in conflict with federal law and held in
low regard by many law enforcement officials, the program continues to
tip-toe around the forces that opposed its enactment in the first place.

Recent arrests of medical marijuana patients on the Big Island illustrate
the problems that can occur when the program crosses paths with police more
accustomed to battling marijuana in the war on drugs than upholding a law
allowing limited use.

Government regulators and those who promote the use of marijuana for
medicinal purposes agree the law is flawed and that changes are needed.

They just don't agree on which changes.

While regulators are hoping to add more restrictions, patients and other
advocates contend the program needs to open up for greater use.

"A lot of people need help -- tens of thousands need help -- but they aren't
getting it," said Roger Christie, a longtime marijuana advocate on the Big

Limited Population

Under the law, only patients with a "debilitating medical condition" -- such
as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS or other chronic conditions that cause severe
pain, nausea or seizures -- can possess and grow marijuana for medical

Patients need a yearly statement from a doctor to qualify for registration
with the state Department of Public Safety. They are limited to three mature
marijuana plants, four immature marijuana plants and one ounce of usable
marijuana per mature plant.

So far, 626 patients have signed up for the program statewide. But of the
hundreds of physicians qualified to certify medicinal use of marijuana, only
48 are participating.

"A lot of people who need it just can't find a doctor," said Tom Mountain,
who runs the nonprofit Honolulu Medical Marijuana Patients' Co-op.

The Hawai'i Medical Association, which fought the medical marijuana bill two
years ago, continues to oppose the program, said Dr. Gerald McKenna, a
Kaua'i addictionist who is HMA president.

McKenna said there isn't enough controlled data on the effectiveness of
marijuana as a pain reliever, while there is data on the harmful effects of
smoking marijuana, which contains most of the harmful substances found in
tobacco smoke.

"It would be almost malpractice to recommend it," he said.

Another reason doctors aren't participating is fear their federal narcotics
license will be taken away, since marijuana is illegal under federal law.

However, Bill Wenner, a Kaiser doctor who handles most of the medical
marijuana recommendations on the Big Island  270 -- noted that the federal
court had ruled that physicians handling medical marijuana cases in states
where it is legal do not have to worry.

Wenner, a former addictionist, called the attitude of HMA officers
"prehistoric." He said marijuana is effective and quite benign.

"It's one of the most thoroughly studied drugs to come down the pike," he
said. "Very few people have gotten into trouble with it."

Increase Limits

Wenner and other marijuana advocates said a number of changes are needed in
the law, including broadening the list of qualifying conditions, raising the
allowable amount of marijuana and allowing controlled cultivation facilities
outside the home for those who cannot grow it themselves. (It is illegal to
buy marijuana.)

A lawsuit was filed last week by three Big Island medical marijuana patients
who say police officers were reckless and indifferent to their medical needs
in a raid of their residence on July 8.

A Puna man is also considering a lawsuit after some of his medical marijuana
plants were confiscated in a helicopter raid July 18. Acting Police Chief
Lawrence Mahuna denied officers were targeting medical marijuana users. He
said the department's primary objective is the large operators.

Public Safety Narcotics Division administrator Keith Kamita said his
department would be going to the Legislature to seek restrictions on the

He questioned the legitimacy of ailments of some patients who have qualified
for the program, and said officials would be seeking new provisions to the
law requiring a physical examination and allowing inspection of medical
records, among other things.

"The idea was that this would be a last-resort type of thing. But that's not
what's been happening with this program," Kamita said.

Moreover, officials hope to cut off the program to certain professions,
including prison guards, law enforcement officers, firefighters and pilots,
he said.

Program Defended

Many medical marijuana advocates say one of the reforms should be switching
administration of the program from the Department of Public Safety to the
Department of Health.

"It's a health issue," said the Rev. Dennis Shields of the Big Island, who
uses marijuana as a sacrament in his ministry. "Law enforcement has no place
overseeing this program."

Kamita defended the department's handling of the program. He said there had
been relatively few problems.

Pam Lichty, board president of the ACLU in Hawai'i and vice president of the
Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i, said that despite its flaws the Medical
Marijuana Program is operating with relatively few complaints.

She and other medical marijuana supporters say they fear that opening the
issue up at the Legislature could backfire on them.

"It took us years to get this law," Mountain said. "We can live with it."
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