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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Marijuana ruling reassures doctors

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer

More Hawai'i doctors may be open to recommending medical marijuana for certain patients after yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court decision, the previous president of the Hawai'i Medical Association said.

Yesterday's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court may lead to more Hawai'i doctors prescribing medical marijuana.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 5, 2000

The Supreme Court ruled that the Justice Department cannot punish doctors in California, Hawai'i and other states who recommend marijuana to ill patients.

Dr. Philip Hellreich, now legislative chairman of the doctors' group, said the organization is pleased that doctors who recommend marijuana won't be punished, but it is unclear whether the ruling means physicians no longer have to fear losing their federal narcotics licenses issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Hellreich said the fear of losing those licenses has discouraged some doctors from considering marijuana as a treatment option. "Some physicians were afraid of prosecution by the Justice Department," he said.

Nine states have legalized marijuana use for people with recommendations or prescriptions from a physician: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawai'i, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Under the Hawai'i law, patients must have a "debilitating medical condition" such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma or other chronic disease and must obtain annual certification from a doctor to qualify for marijuana use.

In Hawai'i, the program falls under the oversight of state Narcotics Enforcement Division in the Department of Public Safety. Division administrator Keith Kamita said 1,039 state residents were registered to use and grow marijuana for medical purposes as of August.

The number increases each year, Kamita said. The Big Island has the most medical marijuana patients, with 513, followed by Kaua'i (259), O'ahu (139), Maui (121) and a total of seven on Lana'i, Moloka'i and Ni'ihau.

O'ahu medical marijuana user Tom Mountain runs the nonprofit Medical Marijuana Patients' Co-op. He said the Supreme Court decision supports the physicians' right to treat their patients.

"It doesn't actually help us get marijuana to sick people," Mountain said, "but it does help doctors feel a little less intimidated."

He said doctors are worried about the potential for the DEA to take away narcotics licenses of physicians who recommend medical marijuana.

"Hopefully, this is the first step in people backing off on medical marijuana," he said.

Hellreich said the Hawaii Medical Association still wants to see evidence that marijuana is uniquely effective in treating patients. The group has opposed medical marijuana, saying its health effects are unproven and that marijuana smoke shares some of the cardiovascular risks of tobacco smoke.

"We don't smoke penicillin," Hellreich said. "We don't smoke ibuprofen."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.