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Stay In or Go Out?

Pakalōlō’s Dilemma in Hawai‘i

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Cover image for Aug 31, 2011

Ever since their installment in 2000, medical marijuana laws in Hawaii were made to be broken–literally. Patients who acquire a license (“blue card”) for medicinal use will find that dispensaries are illegal in Hawaii, due to the federal Controlled Substance Act (CSA) enacted in 1970. As a result, many legal marijuana users turn to the street to buy the drug, which most likely came from an indoor growing envoronment. Indoor growing has become prevalent throughout the US because growers hide their plants inside and away from federal marijuana restrictions, which make even the most legit user nervous.

The number of legal cannabis users in Hawaii has risen from 225 in 2001 to 8,000 users today. One hundred seventy-five physicians in Hawaii are licensed to prescribe medical marijuana, an increase from the 25 doctors in 2000. Big Island has the most medical marijuana patients of the Hawaiian Islands, where almost 58 percent of state medical marijuana certificates are attributed.

A licensed medical marijuana user in Honolulu, who wishes to remain anonymous, gave the Weekly a tour of his closet, which he has converted into a grow house. The small room is filled with fluorescent lamps and a running vent systems, mimicking the plant’s ideal environment. He revealed that he learned how to construct and run everything solely by reading books on the subject.

“The difference in my water and electricity bill when I grow is a lot,” says the planter. He says that luckily his rent covers water, but his electricity bill sees a $300 increase. The jump was so drastic that “[HECO] sent a technician to check [his] meter because they thought it was broken.” The cost prevents him from growing on a regular basis, and he states, “I can’t have a bunch of lights on because I don’t have the money to run them.”

Recently, the board of water supply announced a 75 percent hike in water prices by the year 2015, and growers say the increase in price will inevitably drive up prices for medical marijuana.

The anonymous grower says he’s heard of growers starting to work without electricity in their systems by employing aquaponics and pumps that run off solar panels.

So Why Do Patients Prefer the Indoor Stuff?

For starters, it’s widely available. For growers, there are other benefits to growing indoors, aside from being cloaked from exposure to federal law enforcers. Indoor operations allow the cultivator to control the environment, producing a plant of consistent strength. Whereas outdoor farmers must work with the seasons, indoor plants have climate control with ideal conditions 365 days a year.

Downfalls of growing outdoors include the need for security from humans and animals and a potent smell that affects neighbors. Inside growers can disguise the scent, and while free sunlight is attractive to all growers, an organic cannabis plant can take as long as three months to bloom.

Robert Jacob, the executive director of Peace in Medicine in Sonoma, California, says that his customers do prefer indoor-grown cannabis because “we’ve set up a culture of indoor-grown cannabis. The illegality of cannabis has forced people to go indoors, and it’s what patients have become accustomed to.”

David Barton, who works at the Jimenez-Ewa Beach Foundation Medical Clinic says “there’s no scientific evidence that indoor is better than outdoor. It’s folklore.” He says that despite that, patients still prefer the higher potency of medical marijuana. “Generally people believe it to be true that different types treat different ailments better, but there’s no proof that’s true. People find what they like and stick with it. Everybody has their own individual response.”

On the other hand, Jacob says that some patients find outdoor cannabis tends to solve their ailments just as well as indoor. Others prefer or need indoor because it can be more potent and treat specific ailments more efficiently.

A co-owner of Hawaiian Herbal Health Center in Denver, Colorado, who asked to go by “Shane,” explains that “In Colorado, we don’t have outside organic growers because of state laws. They can only get one harvest out of a greenhouse. Most people will grow indoors as a result.” Hawaiian Herbal sells strains like “Big Island Sativa,” “Maui Blueberry” and “Hawaiian Punch,” all of which are indoor-grown plants.

Jacob believes “as we see cannabis take hold in the medical industries we will see it move to outdoors, because there’s a significant reduction in cost and carbon footprint.” His business now offers a class that teaches patients how to grow their own plants using solar panels to reduce their carbon footprints.

Dr. Evan Mills, a scientist with UC-Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, suggested in a report that dispensaries and “caretakers” (those allowed to grow and distribute medical marijuana to patients) should offer information about the different products regarding their emissions and energy consumption.

How to make the medical marijuana business more eco-friendly may not be a topic of debate in Hawaii for some time to come. In May, the legislature killed a proposal that would have put dispensaries in Hawaii under a five-year probationary period. While dispensaries are by law required to be non-profit, the state of Hawaii collects about $280,000 dollars a year in patient application fees alone. This month, the annual application fee for medical marijuana patients was raised from $25 to $35, and grower licenses can now be as high as $80,000.

“At the end of the day, it’s a plant, and it should grow in fields…. Outdoors isn’t where you make the most money,” says Jacob. “But, for growing, it’s the most economical and ecological.”