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HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaii Legislature has approved a plan to create a system of medical marijuana dispensaries 15 years after the drug was legalized in the state.
The House and Senate passed the bill Thursday sending it to Gov. David Ige.
The development could provide relief to the state's 13,000 patients who have been left to grow their own marijuana or buy it on the black market.
"This is a victory for children who can't be taken care of any other way," said advocate Teri Heede, 60, of Honolulu, who pushed for the bill.
Jari Sugano is the mother of one of those children. Her 6-year-old daughter has Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that can be treated with medical marijuana.
Sugano struggled to find the right strain of marijuana to grow for her daughter, and then to grow the finicky plant, finally converting it into oil.
"It's a huge process to undertake," Sugano said. "I think all of this is going to benefit a lot of families."
Ige hasn't promised to sign the bill, but he has said his staff worked closely with lawmakers to craft the final draft of the legislation.
Under the proposal, dispensaries could begin operating as soon as July 2016. The bill allows dispensaries to open on all the major Hawaiian islands, including three on Oahu, two each on Maui and Hawaii's Big Island and one on Kauai.
Applications for dispensary licenses would become available in January.
Each dispensary license would cover up to two retail dispensing locations and two production centers, with each production center cultivating no more than 3,000 plants.
Hawaii's Legislature was the first state government to approve medical pot in 2000, but a few other states had OK'd it through voter initiatives.
Critics said establishing dispensaries has been an unnecessarily long process. "We should have done this a lot earlier," Sen. J. Kalani English said.
But not everyone was on board with a dispensaries plan that went through a series of compromises, at one point even dying in committee before legislative leaders brought it back.
Rep. Marcus Oshiro criticized the licensing system and said passage could lead to recreational marijuana legalization.
"We only have one shot at doing the right thing the right way," Oshiro said. "Once the bell is rung there is no going back."
Rafael Kennedy, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, said the bill wasn't perfect, but was "an excellent start."
"It will improve the quality of medicine that's available to patients," he said. "And for the first time, they'll have a legal way to get the medicine that everyone realizes they need."