HONOLULU — Hawaii patients have more options to gain access to medical marijuana now that nurses can certify people for use of the drug, a change advocates say was needed because there's a shortage of doctors willing to do the certifications.
Gov. David Ige signed a bill Monday updating the state's medical marijuana dispensary law.
"It's high time that this bill came into effect," said Wailua Brandman, a psychiatric nurse practitioner. "I have patients that have been using marijuana, not legally, because they don't have the diagnosis yet … but the medication is working for them, and they keep asking me, can they get a card?"
Medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii since 2000 but dispensaries were not approved until last year. Until now, patients have had to grow their own marijuana or get the drug with the help of a caregiver.
The Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii fields calls daily from potential patients asking for referrals, but some doctors are unwilling to publicly state that they'll certify for the drug, said Carl Bergquist, the group's executive director.
"I think it's connected to issues around the legality that people are still confused about, and also a lack of education about the benefits of the medicine," Bergquist said. "People remain skeptical."
Paul Klink, a patient advocate who takes medical cannabis for anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypoxia and severe insomnia is trying to change that.
He was taking 28 medications, including addictive painkillers, before he started taking medical marijuana in 2000 and reduced his medication list to two or three prescriptions, he said.
"Without the cannabis there's no way I'd be standing here right now," Klink said.
The bill also fixes a tax loophole that would have entitled dispensaries to tax exemptions if they set up in enterprise zones.
Some advocates want further changes to Hawaii's law to allow dispensaries to sell edible marijuana products.
State law allows medical pot shops to open July 15, but many dispensary owners say they won't be ready before the end of the year because they haven't had enough time since licenses were awarded in April.
Richard Ha, CEO of Lau Ola, a dispensary planned for the Big Island, said he anticipates opening his shop about 10 miles north of Hilo next year.
"We have to build the facility and grow the plants and then develop everything before you can sell," Ha said.
To keep the dispensary safe and deter thieves, Ha plans to have cattle grazing outside the secure facility to keep the grass low so there are no places to hide.
The security cows will be in addition to an alarm system, video monitoring and other security measures the state requires.