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Patients fear losing access to medical cannabis amid push to restrict amateur grow operations

Updated: Apr. 13, 2021 at 5:59 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Since the day medical cannabis was legalized in Hawaii more than two decades ago, the program has centered around the rights of patients and caregivers to grow their own marijuana.

But now, state health officials want to create new rules that would drastically restrict the number of people who could use the same grow site.

For many, including a 78-year-old cancer survivor named Nan, that could mean losing access to their medication.

Nan, who asked that only her first name be used, is a medical cannabis cardholder. She visits the farm where her plants are grown every 10 days.

“It’s a feeling of healing,” said Nan. “That I’m going to get better.”

Breast cancer could have claimed her life in 2019. She says soon after her diagnosis, one of the things that helped the most was an oil made from medical cannabis.

Breast cancer could have claimed Nan's life in 2019. She believes an oil made from medical...
Breast cancer could have claimed Nan's life in 2019. She believes an oil made from medical cannabis is the reason she's in remission.(Hawaii News Now)

In another greenhouse just a few steps away, Kevin is busy pruning plants.

“I’m usually out here two if not three days a week,” he said.

The registered caregiver, who also asked that HNN not use his last name, is on a mission to save his father’s life. Kevin said, “His initial diagnosis was stage 4 lung cancer.”

In addition to radiation, chemo and immunotherapies, his father has been taking an oil produced from plants on the farm.

“My dad, through the entire year of cancer treatment, slept every night 8 to 10 hours a night. And ate every day,” he said. “Most stage 4 cancer patients don’t get that kind of rest. We’re now on month 15.”

Both Kevin and Nan are members of a medical cannabis cooperative on Oahu’s North Shore.

The community grow site has been around since 2014 and serves more than 600 patients ― assisting with cultivation ― at what users say is a safe, secure environment to exercise their grow rights.

Kevin is the registered caregiver for his  father. The 80-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 4...
Kevin is the registered caregiver for his father. The 80-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in early 2020.(Hawaii News Now)

Pointing at the base of one of the plants Kevin said, “They’re all labeled. They have the stock number. The patient number.”

The North Shore growers say they spend a fraction of what they’d be charged at a medical marijuana dispensary. And they’re able to customize their crop to produce strains and products local cannabis shops don’t carry.

“There’s a few things here that I can get that I can’t get there,” Kevin said. “My dad’s cancer medicine. The specific product. They don’t make it.”

The state Health Department is pushing lawmakers to make this cooperative and others like it illegal by creating rules that would restrict the number of cannabis card holders who are allowed to share the same property.

If the measure passes, it would limit the number of patients who could grow at a single site to five for a total of 50 plants.

That means 99% of growers at the North Shore site would have to go elsewhere. For many, it would essentially mean losing access to their medication.

“I’d have nowhere to go,” Kevin said. “I live in a condominium. It is not possible for me to do this.”

Nan added, “I did go to the dispensary and it’s really expensive. And you have to go all the way to town anyway. I don’t know how I could do it. I’d have to go through all my savings.”

Of Hawaii’s 31,509 medical cannabis cardholders, the state says only 36% purchased from a dispensary last year. Many opt to grow their own instead.

Among those patients, there are nearly 3,800 who are registered to cooperative grow sites.

Hawaii News Now asked the Department of Health multiple times for an interview for this story, but the agency refused.

Instead, the Health Department sent an email that said as the registry grows, the department is concerned about “large, uncontrolled cultivation sites operating under the guise of patient home-growers.”

The state said they’ve seen sites with up to 4,000 plants, more than what is initially allowed at a licensed dispensary.

The agency also claims it has gotten a variety of complaints ― everything from patients who reportedly felt coerced by collectives into signing over their growing rights to things like unpermitted indoor lighting and problems with the smell.

HNN asked the state: Why not conduct inspections? Its response: That’s not practical.

Recently, the supervisor of Hawaii’s Office of Medical Cannabis Control told lawmakers the department doesn’t have adequate staff to regulate the licensed dispensaries much less take on any new responsibilities.

“Right now the program consists of three people. Me and two surveyors,” Michele Nakata said members of the House Health and Human Services Committee during virtual testimony on Feb. 5.

Back at the co-op, Nan said the issue has her angry.

“I get frustrated when I hear what the government says I have to do. Buy where they tell me to buy,” she said. “I want to buy where I tell me to buy.”

Patients are also suspicious about the state’s motives in seeking to suddenly stop a practice that’s been allowed more two decades, wondering if officials are trying to drive businesses to the dispensaries.

“I don’t think they understand,” Nan said. “I don’t think they really understand.”

With the closure of the co-op looming, some believe patients’ survival is hanging in the balance.

“I can’t get it (the specific medication). There’s no alternative,” Kevin said. “Without this, my dad wouldn’t be alive right now.”

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