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Legislative committee passes medical marijuana dispensaries bill

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    Rep. Della Au Belatti in the conference committee that resolved differences in their versions of HB321 Monday before voting to send the bill out of conference committee, one step of the way to becoming law.

Patients have waited nearly 15 years for legal access to medical marijuana in Hawaii, and they are now one step closer to reaching that goal.

A bill to set up a system of medical marijuana dispensaries cleared its final committee hurdle on Monday, sending the bill to the full Legislature, where it’s expected to pass.

Under the proposal, dispensaries could begin operating as soon as July 2016, bringing relief to 13,000 patients who have been left to grow the tricky plant on their own or to buy it on the black market.

"We are finally closing the loop in addressing patient needs in a very responsible way," said Rep. Della Au Bellati, the lead negotiator for the House on the bill.

That was welcome news to Teri Heede, 60, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has been growing her own marijuana in Honolulu.

"I was down for a year and couldn’t walk," Heede said. "I started smoking like a burning haystack, and I was walking in six weeks."

The dispensary bill had previously died when Senate and House negotiators couldn’t reach agreement before an internal deadline, but leaders from both chambers waived the rules to give the committee another shot.

The latest version of the proposal paves the way for eight dispensaries to open statewide, including three on Oahu, two each on Maui and Hawaii’s Big Island and one on Kauai. Applications for dispensary licenses would become available in January.

Each dispensary license would cover up to two retail dispensing locations and two production centers, with each production center cultivating no more than 3,000 plants, Bellati said.

"Hawaii finally got it right," said Sen. Will Espreo, who took over as lead negotiator for the Senate after discussions broke down last week. "We are now on the verge of having a safe, secure product for our patients who need this, and in particular the children who will benefit greatly from medical marijuana."

The House and Senate had previously approved different versions of the bill and have been hashing out differences for the past week. Both chambers are expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

"It’s clear that the Legislature has taken the needs of patients to heart," said Rafael Kennedy, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, adding that he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of the bill.

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