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OPINION: New Pot Laws a Prescription for Trouble?

July 1, 2013, 2:39 PM HST
* Updated July 1, 5:53 PM
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On Tuesday June 25, renowned former hippie (and current governor) Neil Abercrombie put his stamp of approval on two bills aimed at improving Hawaii’s medical marijuana system (or lack thereof).

House Bill 668 transfers the authority over the state’s medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health by 2015. Senate Bill 642 increases the amount of marijuana plants and finished product that patients may possess.

While some pot enthusiasts (and the ACLU) have been rejoicing over the the two bills, the new laws don’t exactly represent a giant leap for stoner-kind.

Rather, they represent a concerted effort to make Hawaii’s medical marijuana system more… medical. And not in the new-age, naturopathy/homeopathy/telepathy sense.

Medicinal pot users will now be allowed up to 7 mature plants per patient.

Medicinal pot users will now be allowed up to 7 mature plants per patient.

SB 642 increases the amount of marijuana patients may possess to four ounces of finished product — up from the current three — and allows them to grow up to seven plants of any maturity. But the new law introduces significant restrictions on how medical users access marijuana.

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Instead of patients being able to score prescriptions at their friendly neighborhood “pot doc,” those seeking “herbal medicine” must convince their primary care doctor of their need for weed.

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This should, in theory, and in keeping with the thinking of bill sponsor Dr. Josh Green, stem the budding industry of marijuana-focused MDs. It should also help to ensure that people receiving medicinal pot prescriptions really do suffer from “chronic pain.”

Although the new rules won’t likely affect your average backyard grower/stoner (who likely couldn’t care less), it will likely have several consequences, intended or not.

One is that primary care physicians are less likely — perhaps far less likely — to be willing to prescribe medicinal pot than the physicians currently specializing in it.

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Green says moving the program from Public Safety to Health will ease doctors’ concerns, but they will still have to deal with marijuana’s status of being against federal law.

And another consequence is that it will place medicinal users at the mercy of a fundamental problem in our medical system: the worsening shortage of primary care physicians.

Locating a primary care provider in the islands is already challenging, but the problem is expected to get much worse. According to the Hawaii Pacific Area Basin Health Education Center, the state’s shortage of physicians will grow from 747 doctors in 2013 to 1,500 in 2020, which would mean a 40% shortfall in primary care providers.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie recently signed off on two bills related to medical marijuana use. Courtesy photo.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie recently signed off on two bills related to medical marijuana use. Courtesy photo.

There are already over 8,000 medicinal pot registrants in Hawaii, nearly 3,800 of whom lived on the Big Island as of 2011. According to the Hawaii County Physician Workforce, Big Islanders face a shortage of around 179 primary care doctors.

With an aging population increasingly reliant on the care and referrals our dwindling numbers of primary physicians provide, is it really a good idea to weigh down an already strained system with thousands of people seeking medicinal pot?

Unless lawmakers really have a plan to quickly solve Hawaii’s doctor shortage, Gov. Abercrombie may have just inadvertently signed off on a prescription for trouble.

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