1,039 register for isle pot use
The Big Island has the most
patients listed in a program that
tracks medical marijuana use
UH student seeks comments


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By Helen Altonn
haltonn@starbulletin.com
Three years after Hawaii legalized the medical use of marijuana, more than 1,000 patients are registered to use and grow the plant.

The latest breakdown by the state shows the Big Island has 513 patients; Kauai, 259; Oahu, 139; Maui, 121; Lanai, one; Molokai, three; and Niihau, three, for a total of 1,039.

Nineteen physicians on the Big Island have recommended marijuana, 13 on Kauai, 15 on Maui, 32 on Oahu, and none on Lanai, Molokai or Niihau.

Pamela Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said the number of people approved to use medical marijuana "is really quite extraordinary considering how little you hear about it."

"I think that's the good news," Lichty said. "If there were problems, we would hear about it."

But the program could be improved, say supporters, who advocate moving the program to the state Health Department from the state Public Safety Department's Narcotics Enforcement Division.

The law also could face a test if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear a case involving a similar California law. The court is expected to announce its decision tomorrow.

In Hawaii, the only major problem to hit the news occurred when Big Island police seized marijuana plants and some processed marijuana from North Kona and Hilo homes in July 2002.

Kona police returned some of the marijuana after consulting with the Narcotics Enforcement Division. All the patients were registered to use it for medical purposes.

"I think the local police got the message," Lichty said. "Police on the other islands haven't interfered.

"I would hope police and law enforcement types would realize we have bigger fish to fry (with the methamphetamine epidemic) and marijuana is not that big an issue and medical marijuana in particular."

Narcotics Enforcement Chief Keith Kamita says his staff is doing a good job running the program without additional manpower or money.

"We do this on a shoestring budget," Kamita said.

But he said there are some procedural problems he'd like to see fixed in the next Legislature. Supporters also will seek to move the program to the Department of Health, arguing it's a health program and shouldn't be administered by law enforcement.

Doctors can't prescribe marijuana, but can certify a patient has a qualifying medical condition. The Narcotics Enforcement Division issues registration cards based on the doctor's certificate.

Patients and physicians following the law are protected from state arrest and prosecution and no physicians have gotten into trouble because of the program, Lichty said.

But it's difficult for patients to find physicians willing to recommend marijuana because doctors are ill-informed and worried about busts in California, she said.

Federal laws prohibit any distribution of marijuana, and the federal government has threatened physicians who recommend medical marijuana under state laws.

However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Hawaii, last year upheld the right of doctors to recommend or approve marijuana for medical treatment. The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review that decision.

One of the problems with the program in Hawaii, Kamita said, is that his staff doesn't have inspection powers. Instead, police call the division whenever they suspect someone of growing marijuana to see if the person is on the registry.

"We've had many cases where they claim to be on and they aren't, or they are on and have excessive numbers of plants," Kamita said. "They're still arrestable."

Kamita cites cases in which plants are ripped up or children go into a patient's stash and use the drug.

"And it's not like any other medication where there are precautions on bottles," he said.

Another problem, Kamita said, is "some physicians have way too many patients to be adequately treating them."

He said an amendment to the law will be proposed to require that doctors physically examine and keep records of patients, a practice that Kamita said doctors should already be doing.

"For any other controlled substance, they're required to mandatorily keep records," Kamita said.

Tom Mountain of Oahu, registered to use marijuana for pain and muscle spasms from a spinal cord injury, favors shifting the program to the Department of Health.

"I even have DOH people calling me to get marijuana for some of their sick patients," Mountain said.

But, he said, "My position has been that we can live with the law the way it is. It is such a blessing to have the law, I don't want to take a chance of having it taken away or getting screwed up."

Mountain runs the Honolulu Medical Marijuana Patients' Co-op, which helps patients grow their own marijuana.

Most Honolulu patients are sick or disabled and live in small apartments, and it's not possible for them to grow their own marijuana, he said.

The co-op is patterned after those on the mainland and has been operating successfully, Mountain said. No buying or selling is involved, he said.

"We've been sort of low-key about what we're doing, but we do want people to know I'm in the phone book, and we can help them get their marijuana legally," he said. "We don't want them on the street when they can grow it themselves."

Lichty said: "Most patients are clueless about how to go about this. I think it's difficult for them to obtain it or even get seeds to begin to grow it."

Patients feel the law should be loosened because it doesn't allow enough marijuana to deal with most peoples' ailments, she said. They are limited to three mature plants, four immature plants and one ounce of usable marijuana per each mature plant at any one time.

"People growing it are amateur farmers," Lichty said. "They can't be assured of a steady source. What we're hearing uniformly is amounts should be larger so people have a consistent supply."



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UH student seeks comments

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By Helen Altonn
haltonn@starbulletin.com
Terri Hurst is looking for anyone who has had experience, concerns or problems with the state's medical marijuana law.

Hurst is studying the program for a master's degree in social work at the University of Hawaii.

"In the past two weeks, I realized, wow, this is hopefully going to be a lot bigger than I expected," Hurst said.

Hurst earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and has been in Hawaii for three years working as a residential counselor for Child and Family Service.

She said she's interested in the contradictions between the state and federal law regarding use of marijuana for medicinal purposes: "State law says it's legal; federal law says it's illegal," she said.

She wants to see how quality of life has been affected by the program, either positively or adversely.

She's interviewing as many patients as she can through March, as well as state Narcotics Enforcement Chief Keith Kamita, police officials and doctors, she said.

"Doctors are the hardest population to reach," she said. "It's unfortunate because I feel physicians are the ones who really help to keep the program going."

Hurst's research is expected to help guide proposed changes in the law by the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.

She can be reached at 384-4765.

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