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Silent All These Years—The Peril of Access Remains

April 7, 2010 - Trisha Smith

Legislators reluctant to refresh stale medical marijuana act and patients are still forced to rely on an inadequate system.

(Read my hard news story regarding the unsuccessful attempts to amend Maui’s marijuana laws in the Maui Weekly’s April 8-15 issue. This researched piece is more of an op-ed, in blog form.)

After two years on Maui, the bubble my propitious disposition has drifted around in has burst several times. I have come to realize, time and time again, that although we have some capable lawmakers—even some decent law enforcement officials—the indecisiveness of many, and their fears of change, arise more frequently than gallantry and efficiency across the Hawaiian Isles.

Hawai‘i continues to resist leadership when it comes to controversial matters.

If you want to talk about “green” energy initiatives or sustainability, or another sly way to obtain tourists’ money, our governing bodies seem to open their minds—and funds—without interrogation.

As many of us know, when it comes to liquor control, our islands’ priorities are warped—i.e. dancing restrictions within a designated area rules and the acceptance of “hostess bars.” And opposition regarding small-time gambling, or wagering, have landed a few in trouble.

When monitoring the amount of intoxicated drivers on our roadways during all hours of the day though, law enforcement officials seem deficient, as they continue to pull over and ticket drivers for lesser violations, such as lack of seatbelts or safety stickers.

Getting to the recent legislative session, there were several bills that died due to indecision and resistance this election year that had the potential to really improve public safety, patients’ access to medication and civil rights: those that aimed to relax marijuana laws; one that hoped to permit civil unions between same-sex—and opposite-sex—couples; and a ban on the usage of electronic devices (cell phones, etc.) while driving. All were either deferred or remain undecided this session.

Regarding attempts to amend marijuana laws, some legislators made leaps and bounds by helping controversial issues such as cannabis progress. Yet, in the midst of an election year, and as poor models of implementation and its issues were thrown in the faces of local law enforcement, it’s no wonder an outdated system remains regarding medicinal marijuana and the unreliability of access to medicine still burden registered patients.

Although within my gut lingered the reality that resistance to amend outdated legislation would occur, the optimist that I am had hoped for a compromise.

Most educated people recognize that our nation’s “war on drugs” has failed—there isn’t enough room in this blog to detail the financial and procedural issues that have evolved due to poor implementation of flawed policy throughout past, and present, times.

During a “summit” last month on Maui with the Maui Police Department (MPD) and others, a report from the U.S. drug czar was reviewed, and his concerns regarding the legalization of marijuana were revealed.

(Visit www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/news/speech10/030410_Chief.pdf   to read full report.)

When addressing its legalization, ONDCP’s Kerlikowske asserted, “legalizing drugs would not cut the costs of the criminal justice system.”

He challenged medicinal effects of marijuana—still labeled a Schedule 1 Narcotic according to federal law—and dabbled on issues regarding overdoses on “lesser-scheduled” drugs such as ice and heroin.

Visit the Website of the organization, Patients Out of Time (POT)—a compassionate, science-based educational forum for the restoration of medical cannabis knowledge—at www.medicalcannabis.com and read their rebuttal of the ONDCP
report.

POT Co-Founder Mary Lynn Mathre agreed with Kerlikowske’s support of science-based decisions when it comes to medicine, but she believes he is “relaying on old science.”

“What is so disingenuous about his talk is that he presents drug overdoses as a major public health problem, but ignores the fact that there has never been a recorded overdose from cannabis,” she stated online.

The two Los Angeles County police officers present at the March meeting on Maui presented valid views when it came to their frustrations with their state’s system.

Det. Glenn Walsh said it is sad because those who are really suffering are being
victimized. “For those who abuse the system, it’s not about getting better,
it’s about getting high,” he said.

Sgt. Eric Bixler said people claiming to be caregivers are opening up so-called “compassion centers,” and are really just selling drugs to whomever they
please.

He deemed these “compassion centers” were merely “storefront drug dealers,” which are going to make “a few people rich,” while many others suffer, and for places like Hawai‘i, it could really hurt tourism. “Is it worth that?”

The marijuana legalization effort—Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of
2010—qualified for the California ballot in November recently, so these law enforcement officials may have a whole other set of issues to deal with in the future. (Visit www.taxcannabis.org to read more on California’s proposal.)

Organizations such the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai‘i (DPFH) and the Peaceful Sky Alliance played crucial roles in getting measures through, yet their pipe dreams were shattered as the bills died.

DPFH President Pamela Lichty, MPH, has dealt with policy for many years, so she understands it takes time, but she said patients continue to be astounded about how long legislation takes as they continue to remain fearful as they look to the black market for their medication.

Lichty said instead of listening “to scare stories about the problems in LA, stemming from lack of regulation,” officials could have been working with organizations like DPFH on drafting “fair and workable rules for the proposed compassion centers.”

As co-chair of the Medical Cannabis Working Group—a group that was formed after Gov. Lingle refused to support a task force to investigate medicinal marijuana and cannabis laws—Lichty revealed dispensaries were the primary
recommendation to provide registered patients with safe and legal access to their medicine.

She asserted that Hawai‘i has a “unique opportunity to design a distribution system from scratch,” and no one is looking to mirror California’s flawed system.

From testimony at the State Capitol, on Thursday, March 11, before the Hawai‘i Joint House Committee on Health and Public Safety regarding the most debated bill of the collection, SB2213 (relating to compassion centers and an excise tax),  testimonies revealed conflicting sides to the creation of regulated centers.

The MPD has revealed on several occasions their opposition to these “compassion centers.”
 
Chief Gary Yabuta revealed via testimony that what many perceive as a medical marijuana dispensary is “probably no more than a storefront for marijuana, with or without a prescription.”

He revealed his fears of Maui becoming a “marijuana-driven culture” that would “manifest violence.”

In MPD Vice Division Captain Gerald Matsunaga’s written testimony to the committees last month regarding compassion centers he expressed his “profound opposition.”

“The value of smoked medicinal marijuana is suspect at best,” he testified.

He used California as an example of “good intentions” that have turned into a “nightmare” for its citizens.

Many in the public have the impression that our state and counties could make millions of dollars a year with the compassion centers, yet could it come at too high a price?

Matsunaga said California—with its legalized dispensaries and some forms of legalized gambling—is in its worst financial crisis in their state’s history. Therefore, legalized medicinal marijuana dispensaries in Hawai‘i “would not help our financial woes.”

Matsunaga even asked the committees to realize what the legalization of alcohol and tobacco has done to our country. “Billions of dollars have been spent on treatment, education and enforcement,” he testified.

With this stance, I concur with the captain on some level, yet tobacco and alcohol have continually created detrimental results for its abusers and the people in their lives, according to endless studies. Besides the perception that red wine is good for the heart, and that some alcohol may have calming effects regarding nerves or serve up a good time socially, I’ve rarely experienced alcohol do any good health- or behavior-wise, or be “prescribed” by a doctor.

Being a longtime bartender, with a family history of alcoholism, and an avid social drinker myself, I feel confident stating this.

Evolving science concerning cannabis could prove the plant’s healing powers and no one, ever, has died from ingesting it, and violence has rarely ever been an outcome of its use. 

You can’t say the same about alcohol, that’s for certain.

The Department of Public Safety deemed during the committee hearings last month that some of SB2213 amendments were “premature” since federal law has not changed marijuana’s legality, and that it’s not clear how they plan to “allocate any manpower or funds to implement this new program.”

This I can agree with, on some levels, yet with President Obama Administration’s stance to look the other way federally regarding prosecution of medical marijuana operations that conform to state laws, this argument seems weaker.

NORML (National Organization of the Reform for Marijuana Laws) also continued to strongly support the bills, including SB2450 (civil penalties regarding possession of marijuana bill), which they believe would cut costs and improve public safety. They reason minor marijuana offenders are not the ruthless criminals that law enforcement allege them to be.

They assert officers could be spending their time and money on “protecting the public from more significant criminal activity.”

When it comes to places like Maui County where crystal methamphetamine, or
ice, continues to inflict so much pain in our communities, many are curious to why marijuana remains such an issue, even for those who are registered cardholders trying to obtain a “prescription” recommended by their physician.

For example, an article from the Maui News in February stated that a Wailuku Elementary School teacher was arrested after police reported finding crystal meth in a search of her Kahului residence, not far from a school. How did this happen? Why aren’t we talking more about these kinds of incidences?

With so many from various law enforcement sectors opposed to loosening marijuana laws, grassroots organizations like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) have been stepping out in favor of new legislation.

Founded in 2002, LEAP is made up of “current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who are speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies.” They claim over 16,000 members internationally, including an array of judges, police officers, prosecutors and more.

LEAP’s Jay Fleming testified last month as well, and relayed the organization’s support for SB2213, and “patients need dispensaries as a safe and secure place to obtain medicine” and with the current laws, a patient's public safety is at risk.

He relayed that decisions regarding medical care should be left up to physicians, patients and their caregivers-not the police.  Visit www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com.

If you look at the 14 states that have enacted medicinal marijuana programs, each differ on variant levels. From Oregon, which allows 24 oz of processed marijuana, to places like Montana which only allows 1 oz—what rationality can be made of these restrictions, and how come a streamlined definition of the term “adequate” when referring to supply, hasn’t been addressed?

“Hawai‘i hasn’t changed anything, not even a comma, when it comes to the 10-year-old law regarding medicinal marijuana,” said Lichty.
 
Some people choose to break the law, but that should not deter our legislators from making this product readily available for those who are legit patients and registered within the state.

Protect the registered patients and allow them to legally attain their “prescription,"  eliminate black markets, and possibly support local business with the creation of distribution centers or secured grow facilities around Maui County.

It's unfair that we continue to accept a decade-old act which has remained silent all these years in regards to acquisition.

Means of access to this medical drug should no longer involve underground or illegal activity. Many registered patients are over the age of 50 and have debilitating medical problems, and many reveal marijuana as the only medicine that works in alleviating their pain. Most cardholders don’t have the knowledge to grow the plants correctly or suffer from anxiety and fear of prosecution as they travel into the black market to find their meds.

By introducing bills to amend marijuana laws—thank you Sen. Kalani English and other brave souls—perhaps it set the tone for us to stop spending so much time, money and energy on marijuana prevention or eradication programs—i.e. “Green Harvest”—and concentrate more funds on prevention of such problems as ice and cocaine, and the insane prescription drug abuse that continues to spoil our homes and communities, along with it casting a dark shadow on healthcare professionals.

I’m sick of people saying medicinal marijuana legislation is only about “getting high” or dreams of the legalization of a narcotic. That’s not what this is truly about. Amending out-dated legislation and loophole-filled laws is what is supposed to be wonderful about our country’s democratic process, yet patients’ rights to safe access of medication and reasonable resolutions regarding the implementation of a workable system, perhaps even a beneficial one, still remain on the back burner.

I was recently introduced to the short film, In Pot We Trust, and encourage other open-minded and rational individuals to view. The 90-minute documentary addresses the medical use of marijuana and examines it from every side of the complex issue.

Experience the suffering of four chronically-ill patients whose dependence on the illicit drug as a painkiller and how it continues to be in jeopardy due to federal anti-narcotic legislation.

Visit topdocumentaryfilms.com/in-pot-we-trust/ to watch this compelling research film.

Next year, perhaps we will find more lawmakers working to eliminate the grey area of green medicine, and see a revamped set of bills that have smoothed out the edges which created opposition from many during deliberation. And, next year is not an election year, so there’s one less excuse.

No matter what your stance is on any subject in our community, any time of the year, it is your democratic right to contact your legislators and relay your opinions. Visit capital.hawaii.gov.

 
 

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