Medical Marijuana In Hawaii Still Conflicts With Federal Law

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The Legislature can and should end this harmful discrimination against qualified patients and dispensaries.

It is curious to see the recent dispensary complaints about restrictive regulation and unsustainable tax burdens.

What is missing from this discussion is the fact that Hawaii’s eight dispensaries — as well as our 34,000 lawfully registered medical cannabis patients, for that matter — are all technically federal criminals because the mere possession of cannabis without formal authorization from the Drug Enforcement Administration is a violation of federal law and the federal regulation of marijuana.

The problems that the dispensaries are describing are almost entirely due to the consequences of being continuing criminal enterprises and drug traffickers in the eyes of the federal government, which prohibits the dispensaries from utilizing regular banking services or deducting standard business expenses from their federal tax returns, resulting in an exorbitant federal tax burden of about 70% that must be paid in cash.

This should make us all wonder why the dispensaries are not screaming bloody murder to do something about ending the 22-year-old conflict between the state-authorized medical use of cannabis and the federal regulation of marijuana.

Licensed medical cannabis dispensaries are well established in the islands. But patient and dispensary rights are at risk. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

It may be that as federal criminals it is difficult for the dispensaries to request that our state lawmakers do something to end a conflict with federal drug law when they must violate federal law themselves to participate in Hawaii’s Medical Cannabis Dispensary Program.

I know this is precisely why patients are hesitant to stand up for their medical cannabis rights under state law — because they fear incriminating themselves.

Fortunately for our patients and our dispensaries, both chambers of the Legislature decided to unanimously adopt a resolution last Session that asked the Hawaii Department of Health to do something about this problem.

House Concurrent Resolution 132 asked the DOH to file a federal exemption application with the DEA that would create an administrative exemption for the state-authorized medical use of cannabis in Hawaii to eliminate the current federal conflict and make it possible for dispensaries to do regular banking, accept credit card payments, engage in the wholesale transfer of cannabis products between islands, and remove the stigma that is scaring away countless potential patients and impeding realistic regulation.

This would be very similar to the exemption that already exists under our state Medical Use of Cannabis Act, which exempts the state-authorized personal medical use of cannabis from the criminal penalties associated with the illegal use of cannabis as a state Schedule I controlled substance.

However, despite unanimous support from the Legislature, the DOH is not acting on this request. Which means that the Legislature’s responsibility to end the federal conflict is not yet complete.


We are running out of time.

There are four federal exemption bills that are still alive from last Session (Senate Bill 669, Senate Bill 147, House Bill 668 and House Bill 867), which demonstrates substantial legislative will to take further action on this issue. Now it is up to the subject matter chairs in both chambers to grant hearings for these bills so that we can continue this critical conversation.

We are running out of time, which risks delaying for another year a solution that could remove the harmful discrimination that our patients and dispensaries are experiencing every day.

At the very least, the Legislature needs to show that it is doing everything it can to resolve this unacceptable situation.

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