HONOLULU – With less than five months to go before medical marijuana dispensaries can open in Hawaii, business owners could be facing unique obstacles in a state of islands separated by federal waters.
Dispensaries can open as soon as July 15, but industry experts say they could be confronted with challenges unlike those in other states, such as navigating rules that ban interisland transport and limit the number of growers – all of which could cause marijuana shortages. A lack of labs to test the crops presents another challenge for state lawmakers.
“Hawaii is going to be a really interesting market in general, basically because of the geography,” said Chris Walsh, managing editor of Marijuana Business Daily. “First, it’s a chain of islands separated by bodies of water, and second, it’s remote.”
The state Department of Health is currently reviewing dispensary applications, and plans to award licenses in April. Actor and marijuana advocate Woody Harrelson and video game designer Henk Rogers are among 59 residents who have applied for licenses.
Under a law passed in 2015, the DOH will grant eight licenses statewide for marijuana businesses, each of which can have two production centers and two dispensaries. Three licenses will be awarded for Oahu, two for Hawaii Island, two for Maui and one for Kauai.
However, the law bans interisland transport. Marijuana advocates say that will separate the industry into distinct economies on each island, unlike other states. It could also lead to marijuana shortages, and go as far as preventing some dispensaries from selling marijuana until laboratories are approved.
All medical marijuana must be tested in a state-approved laboratory before it’s sold, but currently, there are none in Hawaii. Some worry that high startup costs and low patient numbers will prevent laboratories from opening on rural islands.
“Clearly, not every island can support a full-on laboratory,” said Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Action Group.
In response, Hawaii lawmakers are considering whether to allow marijuana to be transported to another island if a laboratory isn’t available. Rep. Della Au Belatti, who introduced the bill, said lawmakers are trying to figure out how to get around federal laws that prevent marijuana from being transported by sea or air. She said she asked state agencies to look at other state policies for answers.
Some airports in Washington, Oregon and Alaska allow travelers to fly with marijuana, airport officials told The Associated Press. They said the Transportation Security Administration sends travelers with marijuana to local law enforcement officers, who allow people to board flights carrying legal amounts under state law.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration is required to revoke pilots’ licenses if they knowingly commit a federal crime involving a controlled substance on an aircraft – for instance, transporting marijuana.
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