Hawaii's Medical Marijuana Program

Hawaii’s medical marijuana program has sparked fierce debate over the past decade. Some view it—and use it—as medicine, while others contend it is a dangerous drug, widely abused. How does the program work, and who is involved?


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Teri Heede relieves the symptoms of multiple sclerosis by smoking medical marijuana. She says a specific cannabis strain (sativa) works best for her.

Photo: Elyse Butler

Teri Heede pulls out 25 orange, prescription pill bottles  from a cloth bag hanging from the handles of her red motorized scooter. Then an inhaler, and, from another bag, empty cranberry juice jugs filled to the top with disposable interferon shots. This used to be Heede’s life living with multiple sclerosis (MS)—pills in the morning, afternoon and evening. Pills to quell the side effects of her other pills. Shots Monday, Wednesday and Friday and frequent trips to the doctor. She’s a 55-year-old retired computer engineer who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. She had grown accustomed to having no energy, being violently ill for weeks on end, and losing some of her motor skills. But 10 years ago, she quit the pills and shots and opted for something she says finally worked—medical marijuana.

Today, Heede spends her days out of bed; she just finished volunteering at a Makakilo polling place for the fall elections. She gets by with Aciphex (for acid reflux), occasionally a few Tums and medical marijuana. “Nothing works like this,” she says, holding up a small Tupperware of peanut butter cookies made with “cannabutter” (butter infused with cannabis). She even lets me smell them; the peanut butter overpowers the skunk-y marijuana-laced butter they were made with.

“I don’t get high. This is not a Cheech and Chong moment,” she says. Heede likens using medical marijuana to taking St. John’s wort or any other herbal supplement. It doesn’t bother her that it isn’t federally recognized; she says marijuana helps her more than any of the FDA-approved pills ever did.

Teri Heede's medical marijuana and patient permit.

Photo: Elyse Butler

Heede is one of the approximately 8,000 people in the state who has received a physician’s recommendation to legally grow and use marijuana. Medical marijuana, or cannabis, as medicinal users and advocates prefer to call it, is a hot-button issue. For example, last October, Sen. Will Espero established the Medical Cannabis Working Group after Gov. Linda Lingle refused to convene a medical marijuana task force, even though it had been approved by the Legislature. The group released a report in February detailing statewide program recommendations. Last legislative session, about 20 bills were introduced to expand the program—none passed. Medical marijuana has also gained national attention. In July, the Department of Veterans Affairs formally allowed its patients to use medical marijuana in states where it’s legal, and this month California voters opposed the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010—better known as Proposition 19—which aimed to legalize and tax marijuana.

Local advocates have been fighting for years for a safe, regulated distribution system and to increase the amount of marijuana patients can possess. But there’s a hitch. Patients walk a fine line by using a state-regulated medicine that is also still a federally illegal drug. That’s another reason both Lingle and local law enforcement are opposed to Hawaii’s program. As it stands, there’s a big gray area where contraband cannabis transitions into legal medical marijuana, without clarity or guidance for anyone.

Legislative Passage

Hawaii approved medical-marijuana in 2000 when then-Gov. Ben Cayetano signed into law the Hawaii Medical Marijuana Act. Hawaii was the first state to enact a medical marijuana program legislatively. “It is a compassionate care program for seriously ill people,” says Jeanne Ohta, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, an organization started in 1993 to bring public awareness to Hawaii’s drug issues, and which also provided input for the state’s medical marijuana law.

“Marijuana was legal before the 1930s,” explains Ohta. “A lot of what made it illegal was political and race-based.” Marijuana resurfaced for recreational use in the 1960s and ’70s but it wasn’t until the 1990s that states began pushing for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Today, 15 states have medical marijuana programs; five states allow dispensaries. The state laws vary—California has a patchwork of county-by-county laws—and Hawaii has one of the more conservative programs.

“I think the majority of our legislators have tried marijuana,” says Aron Gonsalves. “They should understand that it’s not something to be scared of. … They need to see someone who is dying of cancer, or who has AIDS or MS and how much medical marijuana helps them.” The former chef of E&O Trading Co., Gonsalves now owns Green Hands of Aloha, a Kalihi hydroponics store, where he merged his two passions—growing local, organic produce and helping medical marijuana patients grow cannabis. He’s a registered user and has been growing marijuana for 20 years. Seventy percent of his store’s customers are medical marijuana patients. He helps them set up custom hydroponics systems—costing around $1,500—and teaches free hydroponics classes at his store twice a month.  Medical marijuana isn’t handled like other medicines are—there is no legal, controlled manufacturing and distributing system. “We don’t ask AIDS patients to make drug cocktails at home. You don’t grow an aspirin tree for your headache, do you?” says Gonsalves.

Opponents believe that marijuana dispensaries in the Islands will only result in higher crime, a spike in the number of users and a conduit for pot into school campuses.

175—The number of physicians who participate in the state medical marijuana program.
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