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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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Aron Gonsalves, the owner of Green Hands of Aloha, stands in his display hydroponics grow room. Seventy percent of his customers are medical  marijuana patients and caregivers. The rest are everyday gardeners.

Photo: Elyse Butler

Pushing for Change

Hawaii is one of the few states with long-established medical marijuana programs that have not been revised since their inception, essentially operating off the first drafts of a legal structure. While parts of the Islands’ law are clearly defined, several holes still exist, such as access, exemption from employee drug testing of patients and bringing medical marijuana aboard interisland flights. Advocates charge law enforcement with stonewalling any attempt to revise or expand the law for the past 10 years.

While the NED administers the medical marijuana program, enforcement also falls to HPD. It, too, polices a program it doesn’t think should be legal. “HPD is against the legalization, decriminalization and medicinal use of marijuana,” says Dowsett. Regardless, officers are trained by the NED to make sure patients such as Shaughnessy have only seven plants and a valid registration, and that Heede’s caregiver is growing her plants at the location listed on her card.

Many of HPD’s investigations stem from complaints, such as a neighbor smelling someone smoking cannabis. An officer then verifies the person’s information through NED. Exceeding the seven-plant limit can result in confiscation or arrest. HPD doesn’t receive funding to enforce the medical cannabis program, but it does get $100,000 to $250,000 annually for marijuana enforcement and eradication.

“They’re not physicians, they don’t care,” says Dr. Charlie Webb, a participating medical marijuana physician who practices urgent care. “They don’t realize that a lot of people really do have chronic pain.” Webb and his wife, Sandy, a registered nurse, run the MUM Clinic (Medicinal Use of Marijuana) in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island.

But the cops have the backing of the federal government—no matter what the Hawaii medical cannabis law says, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug established by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. There are five schedules; marijuana is in the highest classification, grouped with heroin, LSD, and MDMA, or ecstasy, among others. (Meth, however, is a Schedule II.) Advocates want to change marijuana’s classification.

The Hawaii Medical Association (HMA) doesn’t officially support or oppose the state medical marijuana program, but, says HMA executive director, April Troutman Donahue, “We do have a policy that medical cannabis should be rescheduled.” The HMA endorses moving marijuana to the Schedule III classification, which includes synthetic THC (the active compound in marijuana). “In order for it be Schedule I three criteria must be met,” says Donahue. “There must be a risk of abuse, no medical use in the U.S. and a lack of safely accepted use.” Fifteen states with medical marijuana programs and studies finding no known fatal cannabis overdoses contradict marijuana’s current classification. Donahue says HMA is considering taking a resolution promoting the rescheduling of marijuana to the American Medical Association.

Webb, who also participated in the Medical Cannabis Working Group, helped draft the HMA rescheduling resolution this summer. “I never saw a hospitalization from marijuana,” says Webb, who was an emergency room physician for more than 30 years. “The most dangerous thing [about marijuana] is being arrested.”

Webb is one of approximately 175 Hawaii physicians who recommend medical marijuana for qualifying patients. Unlike many of his colleagues, he isn’t afraid to participate in a program that isn’t federally recognized. “I felt like I could do it because I’m older,” he says, adding that he would have feared federal prosecution if he was fresh out of medical school. 

Photo: Elyse Butler

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

Although Teri Heede has gotten relief from her MS symptoms over the past decade by smoking marijuana and eating canna-cookies, she’s only been public about it for two years. In June 2008, the NED accidentally sent the Hawaii-Tribune Herald, a Big Island newspaper, information on 4,200 medical marijuana patients, including Heede. “I had been flying beneath the radar, so to speak, working, volunteering and smoking,” says Heede. “Nobody knew. But then I’m outed by the NED. I thought, ‘Well, now that I’m out, I’ll be there for the people who are afraid to speak up.’” Heede has become a crusader for other patients, especially those just starting out; she has given cannabis to patients who have their permits but don’t yet have access to plants. “Yes, I will break the law that way, but I never distribute it [to people who aren’t patients]. I never would.”

Like Heede, Shaughnessy says he’s also doing his part as a patient advocate. He says he’s hoping to start an online collective in January called Makahiki, where patients can purchase cannabis and have it delivered to their homes. “I feel strongly compelled to do this,” he says, but also admits he’s fearful of a legal backlash.

Until a safe, regulated distribution system is set up, Heede and Shaughnessy will continue to run the risk of confiscation or arrest, despite mostly abiding by the medical marijuana law. As long as the program remains under the NED, many patients will be stereotyped as stoners-in-disguise, and have to work with a department that doesn’t support marijuana’s medicinal purposes. Ultimately, says Heede, having a sense of humor helps. “I’m a grandmother, I vote, I work the polls, I was a soccer mom, I do community service,” says Heede. “We’re nothing like the criminals the NED wants to portray us as.”               

8,067—The number of medical marijuana patients in Hawaii.
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