Debate on recreational marijuana in Hawaii could hinge on regulation of medical cannabis

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Hawaii health and law enforcement authorities are having a hard time keeping up with the rapidly growing and changing cannabis marketplace.

That could end up creating resistance to legalizing recreational use of marijuana, unless the state Health Department can bring other aspects of the cannabis industry under control.

The proliferation of edible candy-like products that include Delta 8 THC extracted from hemp has happened without any state law or regulation to protect consumers.

The development of the edibles industry, as well as the growth of medical cannabis outside of regulated dispensaries is challenging the state while some lawmakers feel getting control of those aspects is a prerequisite to legal recreational pot.

A stroll through Waikiki can turn up a number of shops offering all kinds of cannabis, hemp and CBD products ― almost all legal, at least for now.

Unregulated Delta 8 THC from hemp is causing the most concern.

At a hearing Saturday, Tai Cheng of Aloha Green Holdings, the state’s largest medical dispensary operator, said he supports regulating Delta 8 because its not clear how it’s manufactured.

“Because the Delta 8 product is untested product that is sold at gas stations and hemp stores there could be long range damaging effects,” Cheng said.

Cheng said the product itself is actually of value as medicine, providing lower hallucinatory punch while building appetite for cancer patients.

Even though shops say they only sell to adults, a look in a Mainland distributors catalogue includes many products packaged in kid-appealing ways, including sour-candy rolls.

House Health and Homelessness Chair Della Belatti said there are many reports of the products finding their way to kids.

“We are very concerned that all of these products are dangerous to children. That is what the House is going to be focused on,” she said.

Federal laws and regulations are trying to catch up to the evolving market and new chemistry so advocates of liberal cannabis laws resist an outright ban in Hawaii.

Nikos Leverenz, of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said the focus should be on regulation.

“It really doesn’t make sense to criminalize this component of cannabis right now at this time and we should wait for further direction from the federal government,” Leverenz said.

A medical marijuana cooperative farm on Oahu’s North Shore, which the Health Department says has over 10,000 plants grown by caregivers for over 1,000 patients, is also raising concerns that non-dispensary medical cannabis is out of control, according to House Health and Homelessness Chair Della Belatti.

“The licensed dispensaries are only allowed to have 5,000 plants. We know this coop has 10,000 plants under one roof,” she said. “Clearly there is a disparity.”

Health Department Chief of Cannabis Control Michelle Nakata said because the farm is supported by card-carrying patients and their caregivers, the only enforcement tool the department has is revoking is their medical marijuana cards, which they don’t want to do.

“We still want caregivers to be allowed to cultivate for the patients that they provide care to,” Nakata said. “What we want to do is limit the number of cards that can be stacked at a particular grow site.”

Belatti said the fear is that with so many plants under cultivation and so many people involved in the single site, there could be “leakage” of medical marijuana into the community.

The owner of the Care Waialua, Jason Hanley, said the co-op is completely legal under the rules governing caregiver cultivation. Caregivers can work together to raise up to ten plants per patient.

Hanley said the dispensaries and the state are targeting the co-op because it is providing good medicine at affordable prices – which is a threat to the dispensary industry.

All of this could have an impact on whether lawmakers approve adult recreational use.

Because if the understaffed state can’t control incoming new products or medical marijuana, they won’t be able to manage recreational pot either.

“The medical system has to be sound before we start looking at expansion,” Nakata said.

The state Senate is expected to be friendlier to recreational marijuana legislation, but any new law needs the support of both houses and the governor.

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