Patients in Hawaii have been able to legally use medical marijuana since 2000, but open a dispensary has been a challenge.
Image: Cannabis Training University/Wikimedia
When Hawaii decriminalized medical marijuana in 2000, it made history. It was the first state to legalize weed through a state bill, rather than through a ballot measure.
At the time, advocates believed it was a sign of the state's progressive stance on medical cannabis and would mark the start of better access for patients who need it. But for the last 17 years, there have been endless roadblocks to the one thing that would make it easiest for patients to get weed: dispensaries.
Medical weed has been legal in Hawaii for nearly two decades, and it still doesn't have a single dispensary. The combination of a reluctant state government and the physical challenges of an island state has created multiple hurdles to establishing a legal dispensary system. Now, after years of hurdles, the state's first dispensaries are preparing to open their doors.
"These things take time," said Kerry Komatsubara of the Hawaii Education Association for Licensed Therapeutic Healthcare (HEALTH), a trade organization that represents medical dispensaries. "We're looking at what other states are doing, but it's like riding a bike: at some point you've got to get on the bike yourself and peddle."
When Hawaii passed the state law decriminalizing medical use of marijuana for registered patients, it didn't specify where these patients were supposed to get their supply. There were regulations in place for patients who wanted to grow weed themselves, and they were legally able to carry and use pot, but that meant many patients just ended up purchasing their bud on the black market, from illegal growers. Even though the patients were protected, it wasn't a super convenient or ideal situation.
Over the years, the state government updated the law in bits and pieces, to increase the amount of medical weed a patient could have, for example. But it took until 2015 for lawmakers to finally heed the call for regulated dispensaries, and the state passed a law opening the door for a small number of licensed dispensaries to open up shop.
Though Hawaii has long been a blue state, its lawmakers are often more conservative, and had long been cagey about the idea of setting up a system for medical dispensaries, out of a fear that it would be a slippery slope to full blown legalization, in a state that has struggled with drug abuse.
"This seems to be putting the infrastructure in place for full blown legalization in five years," state representative Bob McDermott told Honolulu Civil Beat in 2015, after the bill passed. "I don't think we need more booze. I don't think we need more drugs."
After years of debate, the state finally passed the law allowing for dispensaries to open up shop, but more roadblocks emerged. Only eight companies have been granted licenses, and have started to grow marijuana, but none are open to the public yet. The state Department of Health—the agency charged with establishing the medical marijuana infrastructure—has been taking months to advance each step of the process, from choosing which pesticides were approved for use on cannabis crops, to writing up a deal to purchase tracking software to oversee the system from seed to sale.
And unlike other states, where dispensaries can source product from independent growers, Hawaii requires dispensaries to handle the entire process themselves, from growing, to processing, to selling.
"I would have liked to see the process move a bit more quickly," said Brian Goldstein, the CEO of Honolulu-based Manoa Botanical, one of eight dispensaries granted a license. "This certainly could have moved along more quickly, but we're dealing with a new regulatory environment."
Goldstein told me there are things unique to Hawaii that present challenges to getting this kind of dispensary network off the ground, too. Land, labor, and electricity are all more expensive than on the mainland; property prices have been surging, and a recent development boom in many parts of the state means construction costs are on the rise, too. And since each island is separated by federal air and water—and marijuana is still illegal federally—these companies have to be completely self-contained, and can't ship product to other parts of the state.
But the companies getting the first foothold in this local industry are optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that as the market grows, it will be able to offer competitive prices. Goldstein told me he hopes Manoa Botanical will be able to open its doors this fall. Right now, the final hurdle is the licensing of lab facilities, which the state requires to test all medical cannabis products for contaminants and potency. Given the state's track record, it's difficult to say how long this final piece of the puzzle could take.
"Some people say things just move more slowly in paradise," Komatsubara told me. "I guess that's part of it, too."Subscribe to Science Solved It , Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.