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Medical Marijuana in Hawaii, Legitimize It with Chris Garth

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Interview & Photos by Lance Arinaga
Transcription by Maria Archilla

August is a big month for weed. Medical marijuana dispensaries are finally opening, and it only took two years after Act 241 passed. But it’s been a little bit of a mess. As of now, there are only two dispensaries opened in Hawaii: one on Maui, and one on Oahu. In a matter of days since opening, both dispensaries were forced to close temporarily due to low supply. Local trade association Hawaii Dispensary Alliance is trying to avoid these issues. Headed by executive director Chris Garth, the Hawaii Dispensary Alliance is devoted to advancing Hawaii’s cannabis industry for everyone, from patients to businesses. Lance Arinaga spoke to Garth about the struggles of starting a new industry, the inner machinations of bureaucracy, and the future for cannabis.

Lance: What is your title at Hawaii Dispensary Alliance?

Chris Garth: Executive director. It’s just like top boss. Previously I was with a lobbying firm that focused on trade associations. The concept of trade associations is a little bit foreign out here. We have really well-known chambers of commerce, but aside from being well known they don’t really do much. Up until a decade ago, the Chamber of Commerce of Honolulu was just ambling along. They do a good job hosting events and they’re a great name—but what do they do? A trade association should do three things: It should provide education and information, it should provide legislative access, and it should provide business networking. Generally, you want to have a common focus for a specific industry.

Lance: So you guys are part of that?

Chris Garth: We’re not part of it, we’re our own version of that, specifically for the cannabis industry. So we take that model and we encourage people to get involved in cannabis. It’s all about just getting the word out and creating a sense of community, a safe place to discuss these ideas and build merit upon them.

Lance: What made you start this?

Chris Garth: We knew that dispensaries were going to come about, but there needed to be a centralized organizational group that would handle the education, the business networking and the lobbying effort. The beauty of what we’re doing is, it’s starting fresh. It’s creating something new. We have the opportunity to completely brand cannabis in Hawaii in our own way. How do we make it legit? How do we make it less four-twenty-centric? How do we make it patient-based? How do we make sure that everyone that wants to play in this industry gets a fair shot? It’s totally different than the way that business is run in Hawaii, right through the old boys network. A lot of people with great ideas get left behind. We figured, we’re young, let’s try and do this the way that we want it to be done. For the last 17 years, since medical cannabis has been available in Hawaii, they haven’t really done anything with it. That was the inspiration. It’s been hard. It still has that stigma and we’re still trying to coax all of the legitimate players to involve themselves.

Lance: How long have you guys been around?

Chris Garth: Three years. We’re going on our third year. That’s why you haven’t seen me in at least two years. [Laughs] I haven’t been to the club in a long time. I’ve been putting every penny that I’ve ever saved, that I didn’t lose in 2008, into this. It’s pretty nuts.

Lance: I was tripping when I went to Portland two months ago. It’s not even medical, you can just go there and be 21. I just looked up ‘dispensary,’ walked to it and you show them your I.D. And it’s not like people are going crazy, smoking all over the place. How long has it been legal there?

Chris Garth: Since 2014.

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Photos above from Quality Drugs a dispensary in Portland, Oregon.

Lance: It was just like a regular thing.

Chris Garth: Exactly. So in three years, prohibition has been removed, markets are thriving and they have great tax revenue. Public safety is not a concern when it comes to cannabis. And I think they’ve done a great job of mitigating the risk for youth.

So that’s essentially what we’re trying to do now. The adult-use recreational market in Oregon is totally different than what we have. Some people see medical as a step to adult-use. I don’t see it like that. I see that adult-use will eventually happen, but right now medical is what the patients need. There are people out there with legitimate medical concerns that don’t want or need opioids, that need access to cannabis—and they can’t get it. So let’s address that first. When we talk about tax revenue, when we talk about adult-use—sure that’s a conversation. It’s not necessarily incremental. Alaska passed a bill in 2016, and they have adult-use dispensary stores open before medical. As of earlier this year, they didn’t have medical. So it’s not necessarily a stepping stone. Medical doesn’t lead to adult-use. In some cases, it’s just adult-use.

Lance: So, there’s only eight licensees in all of Hawaii, right?

Chris Garth: Correct.

Lance: I thought that was a trick because there’s two right next to each other, basically by my house that are so close to each other like a block or two apart.

Chris Garth: They’re not even two blocks! They’re like 45 feet away from each other. They’re literally across the street.

Lance: The other one is in Kapahulu, so they’re all in town.

Chris Garth: They’re all in town, in Honolulu County. All three licensees are within a two mile radius.

Lance: So on O’ahu there’s only three?

Chris Garth: Only three licensees.

Lance: That’s fucking wild.

Chris Garth: That was established in 2015, when the law was passed. As they were debating the law, the number went from 26 licensees down to eight. And that was a last-minute deal because at 26, we were supposed to have what was considered a horizontal licensing regime, which would mean there are different licenses for different aspects of the industry. So one to retail, one to grow, one to manufacture—like edibles or lozenges, anything other than raw flower. But now it’s a vertical program. So if you’re going to grow, you have to sell that and if you’re going to sell something, you have to grow it. If you’re going to manufacture, it falls in between that. It falls in that spectrum, so you’re held accountable for it.

The idea behind that was to cut down on product diversion, meaning, “I know who grows it, I know who sells it, it comes from a single brand, a single license entity.” It’s tracked from seed to sale, which is one of the components of the law. You have to tag every plant, you have to weigh every bud, you have to account for it all the way through the chain of custody until it’s out the door. The vertical program was meant to cut down on diversion and keep everybody accountable for their own product. The accountability for the inputs and the outputs are a little bit harder to track with a horizontal program.

med Aloha Green currently the only dispensary open on Oahu as of today.

Through the statute, there are three licensees in Honolulu, two on Hawaii county, two on Maui County and only one county on Kauai. I don’t necessarily agree with that, and at the time we only had 13,000 patients. I imagine as soon as the dispensaries open, we’ll see 20,000 or 30,000 in a matter of a couple of months. If the Department of Health can keep up with the registry of all the patients, that may change as well. Right now, they do all the data entry manually. It can take up to two weeks to get a card, which doesn’t seem like too long. But in cases of life or death, such as people who are in hospice, they’re looking for their last few days to be in comfort. They need that pain reduction. Two weeks is a long time, man. That’s an eternity.

Eventually, if we stay with this medical program, we could have one license for every 500 patients and at 17,000—that’s substantial. That’s 34 licenses. But we’ll see what happens. In this last legislative round, the chair of the health committee in the house and the complimentary committee in the senate deferred the action to approve additional license for a year. We were supposed to approach new licenses in October this year but they decided they’re not going to have more licensees anytime soon. I’m not exactly sure what that’s all about, I couldn’t get a straight answer. Believe me, I’ve pressed.

Lance: Last time I saw you, I was talking about my relative, and how she had cancer. She never did it nor wanted to do it, but after her first round of chemo, she asked, “Hey, can you get me some marijuana? I need it now.” I got it for her and she’s been doing it but she’s kind of scared still.

Chris Garth: Does she have her card?

Lance: She doesn’t want to get it because she thinks it’s illegal, but she needed it because she didn’t feel good. She’s even skeptical now to keep doing it, even though it helps her out. She’s old-school so she’s like, “I can’t, I don’t want to get in trouble doing this.” But this is not such a bad thing. She’ll say, “I want to try and do it two or three times a day,” I told her you can do it more if you feel you need it.

Chris Garth: What we try to do is encourage people like your relative to engage with with a healthcare professional to get her card. Of course, at the same time, we make sure that if she has a card, there aren’t any legal consequences to be involved. That’s the lobbying aspect. The information aspect is making sure that she knows where to go so she can get her card and knows what medicine to get. The business networking side of it is creating this full-scale market. I would say the biggest takeaway from this is yes, cannabis is a growing industry, it’s still going to grow in Hawaii. But for anyone that wants to get involved and be an entrepreneur in any capacity, before you start your company, make sure the industry itself has been established. Because here we are trying to create the industry and trying to create our own company. Fuck man, that shit don’t work. [Laughs] So from a business development standpoint, always make sure that the industry is in place before you try to brand yourself. All the growing pains you go through as a business are multiplied, exaggerated by the fact that there’s no industry to support you. We’re trying to tell people, “We’ve created an industry. You should join. You should be a part of it. You have something to offer.”

Lance: I feel like once the dispensaries are around, it should be easier?

Chris Garth: Yes, but it’s kind of hard. Is it the chicken or the egg? It’s like we’re trying to build a boat in the middle of the ocean and it’s terrifying, but it’s a lot of fun. I never thought that I’d be an entrepreneur. I never thought that I’d be my own business owner. And here I am.

www.hawaiidispensaryalliance.org