Hawaii’s cannabis industry is facing more setbacks as the state struggles with an understaffed program.
Seven of 11 positions are vacant at the Department of Health, which oversees the medical cannabis patient registry and dispensary licensing programs. The registry is down three of six people, while the dispensary program has four vacancies out of five.
“The state’s medical cannabis dispensary program is failing patients,” said Teri Gorman, spokeswoman for Maui Grown Therapies, the state’s first dispensary, which opened in August on Maui.
Many patients don’t want to smoke, and rely on dispensaries for alternatives including vaporized oils, capsules, lozenges and topical lotions, she said. However, the state has still not certified a lab to test those products.
DOH rules also ban dispensaries from selling devices such as prefilled cartridges used in vaporizers, so patients must fill their own cartridges with a syringe, she added. The dispensaries can sell concentrates such as oils, wax and hashish.
“Dispensaries are still operating under vague and cumbersome interim rules that encourage patients to smoke or seek black market alternatives,” Gorman said. “This demonstrates the absurdity of allowing the sale of concentrates while prohibiting the most common method of administration. Imagine a new cancer patient coming into a dispensary only to discover she can’t purchase what she needs to get quick relief from pain or nausea without smoking. These delays hurt patients and drive costs up. Greater product diversity and lower prices will not result from additional dispensaries if the regulator is understaffed, overwhelmed and unresponsive.”
The DOH has faced scrutiny from lawmakers and others in the industry for a delay in installing its cannabis software tracking system and the slow certification of laboratories to test the drug’s potency and purity before it can be sold to patients.
“We have achieved major milestones this year: safe, legal access to lab-tested medical cannabis in Hawaii,” said Michael Takano, CEO of Pono Life Sciences Maui. “However, regulatory and industry obstacles inhibit how fast this new industry can meet growing demand.”
Although the industry has seen a surge in pakalolo patients, dispensaries have yet to see a substantial boon to business.
“We’ve served more than 1,500 patients … since our opening in October. Sales are going reasonably well given the challenging environment, but neither sales or patient counts are where we thought that they would be,” said Brian Goldstein, CEO of Oahu dispensary Noa Botanicals. “We are very concerned that the medical cannabis program is understaffed and underresourced, which is making it difficult for DOH to do all the community education and outreach that the law requires. We think this is slowing the increase in patient counts.”
The Health Department said it issues roughly 1,500 patient cards each month. The registry had 19,750 cardholders as of Nov. 30, compared with 11,402 on Jan. 1, 2015, when DOH took over the program.
The department said the vacancies haven’t affected or delayed the opening of production or retail facilities. However, there has been an increase in the turnaround time to process patient registry cards to 10 days from seven days, though the issuance of cards to cancer patients and children is still within two working days, DOH said.
“This is not having a major impact on either program,” said Keith Ridley, who is heading the dispensary program while DOH searches for a supervisor to fill the role. “At this time, all scheduled and unannounced inspections have been proceeding as usual. No dispensary operation, production or retail facility has been negatively affected by the reduced staffing of the dispensary program.”
‘An uncertain climate’
Aloha Green Apothecary said it has had 2,302 patients, more than 30 percent of the registered patients on Oahu, since opening in August.
“We are disappointed with the speed at which the program was implemented. Aloha Green Apothecary was ready to begin growing in September 2016 and begin dispensary sales in January 2017,” said spokeswoman Helen Cho. “The Department of Health is underfunded and understaffed to work through all the growing pains in this expanding industry. It is not from a lack of resources or focus from the licensees.”
Dispensaries are also frustrated the state has still not issued final rules for the program and is still operating under interim regulations, she said.
“The current regulatory climate is like playing in a sports league where the rules are constantly changing and the referees aren’t sure how to apply the rules,” Cho said. “Currently, there is only one referee to officiate and answer questions for eight licensees spread over the entire state on four islands. It would be foolhardy to expand in such an uncertain climate.”
The Health Department has done little to educate the public about the cannabis program, Gorman added. Although medical marijuana was legalized in 2000, patients have had no legal way to buy the drug.
“We’re prohibited by law and regulations from advertising, and the Department of Health is supposed to educate but they really have done little in education aside from a monthly newsletter from time to time,” she said. “How are these people supposed to understand how this program works? We have over 16 years of people growing their own or having caregivers grow, so you have well-established behavior patterns. A lot of new patients are coming into the dispensaries. It’s safe to assume some of long-term cannabis patients are not.”
The dispensary program is seeking to fill a supervisory position, office assistant, inspector and accountant, while the patient registry is recruiting an office assistant and two program specialists. For more information, go to dhrd.hawaii.gov/job-seekers/civil-service-hawaii-state-government-jobs.