The House Health Committee voted 7 – 0 Friday to create a task force that would examine issues surrounding the development of a medical marijuana dispensary system in Hawaii.
Before voting on House Concurrent Resolution 48 and House Resolution 29, committee members heard from Jari Sugano, whose 5-year-old daughter Maile Jen Hope Kaneshiro suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare and intractable form of epilepsy.
Sugano says her daughter has taken over a dozen pharmaceutical drugs and tried a special diet, but nothing helped calm her seizures, which can number as many as 3,000 per day.
Relief came in 2013 when Sugano saw a story by CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Gupta's report focused on how a child suffering from Dravet syndrome was helped by the application of oil extracted from marijuana. Sugano did some Internet research and was soon producing marijuana oil known as THC-A, which contains low amounts of the compound that gets marijuana users high.
"Maile still suffers from seizures, but the severity and quantity has subsided dramatically over the past three months," Sugano told lawmakers about the marijuana oil's effect.
The only problem, the oil Sugano manufactured ran out and her daughter is back struggling with the debilitating symptoms of her disease. Sugano urged lawmakers to quickly develop a dispensary system that would allow medical marijuana patients to obtain a reliable supply of the drug.
"Having a state medical marijuana program without having a lab or dispensary is as dangerous as giving a person a pill bottle with no prescription or information to go by," said Sugano. "We need to increase safe access to cannabis and approve legislation to move Hawaii forward in providing Hawaii residents with medical-grade forms of cannabis."
If the resolutions are approved by the state House and Senate, the 10-member task force would utilize directors from various state agencies, including the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health and the state Attorney General. The panel would also include a chief of police, a representative from the ACLU and a member of the Hawaii Medical Association.
Rep. Della Au Belatti, who chairs the Health Committee, said Sugano's story "highlights the need for a responsible, sustainable dispensary system" in Hawaii.
The task force will be charged with answering many questions about marijuana dispensaries before reporting back to the Legislature in January, including whether the harmful effects of marijuana smoke could be a liability issue if patients file a health claim against the state. Lawsuits against the tobacco industry resulted in billions of dollars in payouts and mandatory warning labels after passage of the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act in 1965.
However, personal injury attorney T.J. Lane doesn't believe a medical marijuana patient would have a valid claim against the state if purchasing pot from a government-backed dispensary.
"Presumably, when the medical marijuana is dispensed, the individual or the patient receiving the medical marijuana would sign a consent or waiver form that that patient knows about the risks of marijuana and also absolves the state and the dispensary of any liability," Lane explained.
In addition, the Honolulu attorney said state governments have many layers of immunity and any lawsuit filed on behalf of a medical marijuana patient whose health has suffered would face a statute of limitation.
"Keep in mind too that under the current law, before a patient is able to receive medical marijuana, that patient's treating physician must sign a written certification that the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh all of the health risks," said Lane.
Au Belatti told KITV4 warning signs may be an option before patients walk into a marijuana dispensary in Hawaii.
"We're going to look at what other states are doing. And if they're adopting those kinds of warning labels, we certainly are going to want to consider those," she said.
Starting Jan. 2, medical marijuana patients in Hawaii will be allowed to grow seven marijuana plants instead of three mature and four immature plants under the current law. Patients holding a medical marijuana card will also be allowed to possess four ounces of processed marijuana instead of just one ounce.
Medical marijuana oversight will also move from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health, under Act 178 passed last year by the state Legislature.