Bills before lawmakers threaten future of 1,000-patient medical marijuana farm on Oahu

The farm offers medical marijuana patients access to grow their own, but critics say big farms are a threat to cannabis dispensaries and public safety.
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 5:58 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 11:27 PM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A huge marijuana farm on Oahu’s North Shore is the focus of one of the hottest debates in the state Legislature.

Care Waialua offers medical marijuana patients access to grow-their-own sites, and it has more than 1,000 medical marijuana card-holders signed up.

But critics, including the state Health Department and key lawmakers, say big farms are a threat to public safety and the integrity of the network of licensed cannabis dispensaries.

Hawaii state law allows each patient to have 10 plants.

With so many patientsCare Waialua could technically have up to 10,000 plants in its climate-controlled greenhouses.

The farm in a remote former plantation field rents space to marijuana card holders and caregivers ― with each plant tagged to an individual owner.

Owner Jason Handley said they are meticulous in following the medical marijuana law,

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“You must have the plant the patient’s registration number, and the patient’s expiration date on the card tagged at the base of the plant for DOH compliance to check,” Hanley said.

But the farm’s critics say Hawaii’s licensed and regulated cannabis dispensaries are an essential service and are threatened by large shared grow sites, which don’t have the same regulation as dispensaries.

“We all know that cannabis is still a harmful product,” said House Health Chair Della Belatti. “That’s the reason why we have dispensaries. That’s why we have the medical cannabis laws.”

The issue has led to heated testimony at House and Senate hearings.

At a recent hearing Brian Goldstein, the founder of dispensary Noa Botanicals, told senators he checked out Care Waialua personally.

“I can tell you I walked into this facility, signed a couple of pieces of paper and was welcomed to purchase cannabis within about 15 minutes of arrival,” Goldstein said.

“So this is not a cooperative. This is an unlicensed and unregulated dispensary.”

Hanley said like other new patients who sign on, once a they register as a grower with the farm, they can be given access to plants that are ready for harvest.

The popularity of the shared sites, which exist on every island on a much smaller scale, may be luring patients away from the dispensaries.

The Health Department said most of the state’s cardholders are not buying from dispensaries.

The hearings are seeing growing numbers of Care Waialua supporters coming forward.

At a recent House hearing, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele ― founder of the cultural village Pu’uhonua o Waimānalo ― said 100 cardholders from his Waimanalo village joined Care Waialua.

“We used to have a grow there,” Kanahele said. “We stopped because of Jason (Hanley), his expertise, the quality of medication, and a whole bunch of other things that is unseen. A lot of work went into that place.”

There were also accusations of unfair influence.

Al Keaka Medeiros, an advocate for traditional agriculture, said dispensaries’ political donations are buying them protection from competition.

“This shows a list of many different politicians and senators who are being bought out by these dispensaries,” he said, naming Sen. Joy Buenaventura and Belatti, who responded in an interview.

“No one has greater or lesser access because of campaign contributions,” she said. “In this situation, you know, we’re listening to all sides.”

Lawmakers emphasized support for patients and caregivers to grow their own but not on the scale of Care Waialua.

After the Health Department proposed that cooperative farms be limited to five cardholders, lawmakers upped the numbers. The House would allow up to 20 growers, the Senate 50.

But either number would effectively shut down Care Waialua’s 1,000-patient site, according to Joseph Rosenbaum, attorney for Care Waialua and other legal cannabis companies.

“The practical reality is you are taking thousands of people’s medicine away from them,” he said. “There’s no good reason. Even the Department of Health agrees they are in the business of helping patents with their medicine.”

The measures to improve the medical marijuana system both face additional hearings.

A bill to allow recreational use of marijuana by adults passed the Senate, but has been killed in the House.