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New High: Medical marijuana dispensaries bill

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    Sen. Will Espero held up a copy of HB 321 with Rep. Della Au Belatti, left, Monday after the conference committee approved the bill, which would establish medical marijuana dispensaries. The bill now goes to the full House and Senate for a final vote.

Some 15 years after medical marijuana use became legal in Hawaii, lawmakers are suddenly on the verge of permitting dispensaries to sell the drug to the 13,000 patients across the state.

In a highly unusual move, House and Senate negotiators Monday revived and then unanimously passed a medical pot dispensary bill that many observers had thought was dead and buried last week. The measure, House Bill 321, would allow for dispensaries at as many as 16 sites across the islands, including up to six locations on Oahu, starting as early as July 2016.

"I can’t believe it — tears of joy today," Maka­kilo resident and medical marijuana patient and advocate Teri Heede said Monday, minutes after the vote. "I’m satisfied with the bill as it is, to get us going. I do believe improvements need to be made, of course. Nothing’s perfect."

Some legislators agree, and they’ve designed a measure that they contend gives the program a modest start while leaving it open for additional dispensaries later if demand is there.

The program initially would exclude patients on Molo­kai and Lanai, but lawmakers say they plan to revisit the issue of getting dispensaries to those islands later. The program would further ban any interisland transport of medical pot from dispensaries.

The bill now goes to the full House and Senate for a vote later this week. Both chambers voted to pass their own versions of a dispensary measure earlier in this session. It remains to be seen whether they’ll accept all the changes made during a series of dramatic and grueling conference hearings last week.


House Bill 321 would:
>> Award eight medical pot dispensary licenses — three on Oahu, two on Maui, two on Hawaii island and one on Kauai — which allow for up to 16 retail sites across the state.
>> Accept applicants for those licenses Jan. 11-29 and later award them on a merit-based system.
>> Require a $5,000 nonrefundable fee to apply for a license.
>>?Require an approved dispensary to pay a fee of $75,000 for a license, with a $50,000 annual renewal fee.
>> Have those dispensaries open as early as July 15, 2016.
>> Revisit the program in October 2017 to see whether more dispensaries are needed.

If the legislators do pass it, the bill then goes to Gov. David Ige. His office has previously said that he’s open to signing a dispensary bill into law.

Notably, two Ige Cabinet members, Attorney General Doug­las Chin and Health Director Virginia Pressler, spent part of the past weekend at the Capitol working on HB 321 with Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Moiliili-Makiki-Tantalus) and Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), the bill’s two conference leaders.

The dispensary program those two lawmakers negotiated Monday resolves the key sticking point that sank talks last week between Au Belatti and the Senate’s previous conference chairman, Sen. Josh Green. A rare maneuver by the Senate’s majority later kept the bill alive past its deadline and forced Green out of those negotiations.

Green (D, Naalehu-Kai­lua-Kona) had insisted that the state award the licenses to applicants looking to run dispensaries on a first-come, first-served basis. However, with leaders from both chambers present, Au Belatti told Green that House leaders would not accept that proposal. They preferred awarding the licenses with a merit-based approach instead.

Green remained firm, arguing that a merit-based system could be applied arbitrarily and would be open to corruption. Ultimately, Au Belatti deferred the bill.

When Au Belatti and Green failed to agree by Friday’s 6 p.m. deadline to pass bills out of conference committee, advocates such as Heede were disappointed and deeply frustrated. Lawmakers had made a dispensary program one of their top priorities in this year’s session, and the effort had progressed smoothly until last week’s conference talks, which at times grew heated.

Some dispensary advocates were irked by what they saw as a hard-line approach by Green.

During a conference hearing Friday, Green had said he declined to meet with the governor’s staff about the dispensary measure. He added he would not change his position on certain provisions even if that might cost Ige’s support and signature.

"The governor doesn’t know half of what I know or you know or Sen. Espero knows about this program," Green told Au Belatti during conference Friday. "He’s a fantastic guy but he’s not in the trenches."

Mike McCartney, Ige’s chief of staff, said the administration had aimed to ensure that the deadlines built into a new law to launch the dispensary system allowed enough time to get the job done.

"It’s a brand-new program," McCartney said. "Timelines are important. We don’t want to have an unrealistic timeline and have the people then run into problems."

The bill’s latest draft provides a 21⁄2-week window in January for potential dispensary owners to submit their applications.

Individual applicants would have to show they’ve lived in Hawaii at least five years, and "entity applicants" would have to be registered to do business in the state and be majority-owned by Hawaii residents.

The latest draft further would eliminate a proposed 15 percent general excise tax on marijuana sales. It also would allow for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to participate in the program.

It would allow for up to eight dispensary licenses: three on Oahu, two on Maui, two on Hawaii island and one on Kauai. Each licensee could open up to two retail sites and two "grow" sites to cultivate the marijuana. Each grow site could contain up to 3,000 plants.

On Monday, Green texted a Hono­lulu Star-Advertiser reporter a statement saying he was excited for a potential 2016 launch. It also touted provisions he had pushed for, such as including PTSD patients. He declined to say whether he would vote in favor of the bill.

Meanwhile, Heede, who said she used the drug for more than 20 years to help cope with multiple sclerosis, maintained a dispensary program is long overdue.

"They criminalize patients by giving us a program with no way to get our medicine," Heede said.

She added that for the past decade she’s cultivated her own pot — but that also requires going to the black market for seeds and plants. "Where else am I going to get it?"

Star-Advertiser reporter Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.

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