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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

Medical marijuana law yet to realize potential

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui Bureau

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 Island.

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 purposes.

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 program.

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."