High in Hawaii

I moved to Hawaii in 2003 after two tours in the Peace Corps reforesting degraded landscapes and monitoring coral reefs among island cultures. At the University of Hawaii (UofH), I studied the ability of plants to intercept pollution to keep streams and beaches clean. I dreamed that in the long-term I’d investigate the ecological and public health effects of growing cannabis sativa and other medicinal plants via Surfing Medicine International, a 501(c)(3) non-profit I co-founded.

The Hawaiian island chain includes the inhabited islands of Kaua’i, O’ahu, Maui, Hawai’i, Ni’ihau, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe. Many native Hawaiians see Kaho’olawe as the focal point to reinstate the Hawaiian nation. Kaho’olawe, an island off the coast of Maui, is riddled by effects of decades of overgrazing animals and US military bomb testing. The Hawaiian Islands were an independent nation until 1898 when the US Congress voted to annex the islands as a US territory. Since no treaty was ever signed with the original inhabitants or their government, its legality continues to be questioned because it was a United States Government resolution and not a treaty of cession or conquest as required by international law.

While at UofH, I did research, funded by US Department of Agriculture (USDA), on the north shore of Kaua’i for two years. I now work examining the woods of O’ahu, often by helicopter, to gather information and
photograph the areas. The Hawaiian Islands have a wide variety of plant, marine and animal life. Vegetation zones include coastal, dry land forest, mixed open forest, rain forest, sub-alpine and alpine. More than ninety percent of the native plants and animals living in Hawaii are found nowhere else in the world, and a greater variety of fish exist in its waters than elsewhere. Known as the endangered species capital of
the world, at least one third of all the endangered species in the United States are found in Hawaii. These include the Nene Goose (official state bird), the Humpback Whale (official state marine mammal), the Pacific Green Sea Turtle, and the Pueo (Hawaiian owl). The threat is almost exclusively from man’s encroachment of habitat and the consequences of industrial pollution and resource extraction.
Guy Ragosta, co-founder, surfing Medicine InternationalGuy Ragosta, co-founder, surfing Medicine International
As a Watershed Protection Support Technician for the Ko’olau Mountains Watershed Partnership, I also stand up for Hawaiian residents that want medical marijuana regulated and controlled. I dream to someday get permits from Uncle Sam and the DEA to research Volcano Vaporizers and watershed cannabis monitoring equipment, and to increase international collaboration between traditional healers to research the medical and ecological effects of cannabis underground.

My interest in widespread cannabis cultivation here evolved from my observations of the effects of US government policy overseas on local people: industrial free trade zones; uncompensated damage of the slave trade scattered across the Caribbean; unexploded Pacific Island ordinances; large scale US Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) agriculture operations, which effectively discourage affordable locally grown organic crops; and a lack of sustainable agro-forestry systems for island peoples. “I’d like to see someone write a story called ‘30 days after the boats stop coming’,” said Brian Murphy, Director of Patients Without Time, a group of medical marijuana patients on the island of Maui, when we met to discuss this article.

Murphy explained, “These islands are 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass. If the boats stop coming to Hawaii from these far-away food sources, then there is only enough food on the island to last 30 days or less. In Hawaii, sugar cane and pineapple represent the largest agriculture operations. Genetically modified food farms run by corporate giants like Monsanto dominate agriculture. If a tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, or other catastrophic event slammed Hawaii, what would islanders do to survive? When sea levels rise over the coming century from the rapidly occurring climate change, what will happen to atoll and island peoples? Hawaii’s reliance on shipped foods and medicines is risky when viewed through the prospects of dramatic and sudden eco-logical changes.” Murphy has big plans, and they’re moving forward. “Let’s vote back America. That’s one of our main political vehicles out here in Hawaii. The only way I see change is through the democratic process.” That’s why Brian and citizens of Maui have formed the Maui County Citizens for Democracy in Action (MCCFDIA). From their manifesto: “The MCCFDIA is committed to changing Maui County from a dangerous import-dependent economy to a safe, self-sustainable island community through the diversification of Maui’s agricultural industry. Maui County Citizens for Democracy in Action supports a common sense alternative to Maui’s current marijuana laws. In partnership with Maui’s community of healers, doctors, and caregivers, we encourage herbal medicine as an Jamilah StarJamilah Staralternative to more expensive and risky pharmaceutical drugs. Maui County Citizens for Democracy in Action envisions a system, in Maui County, the State of Hawaii, and the United States of America, where drug use becomes a heath issue, not a criminal issue. We will increase revenues for Maui County as well as the resources available for health care and treatment. Innovative drug reform will focus on prevention, education, treatment alternatives, reduced crime, reduced incarcerations, and reduced strains on our judicial system/police department. A strong community effort will be required to register voters and gather signatures for a successful petition for 2008.”

Murphy continues, “To that end, we are trying to get House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 10 passed in the Hawaii State Legislature. HCR 10 calls for a county-regulated “Family Farmer” program under which farmers would be licensed to cultivate and distribute marijuana for up to 200 medical marijuana patients. The resolution would also direct the Maui County Police Department to make adult medical marijuana offenses its lowest law enforcement priority. Finally, HCR 10 advocates further legislative change on medical marijuana, at both the state and federal levels.

Dr. Jimenez of Medical Marijuana of Hawaii, a California medical marijuana couple, Brian Murphy and myself traveled to observe the grow room providing medical marijuana patients across Maui via one dispensary, and to brainstorm as a group the possibilities for research and change in the Cannabis Earth landscape. At Peahi (Jaws) in Maui, the ocean produces wave faces greater than 50 feet tall, attracting the bravest of wave warriors who, in the Hawaiian surfing world, act as role models in a conservative surf media. Many pro-surfers smoke ganja to ease chronic pain and injuries from surfing, but cannot let it be known to the public for fear of losing their sponsorships in the competitive sports marketing world.

Jamilah Star, slidin' down a glassy face  Photo by Tim McKennaJamilah Star, slidin’ down a glassy face Photo by Tim McKenna“Everyone has so much fear of stepping out of the box,” says Jamilah Star of Team Jam Star and Surfing Medicine International. “Many companies gear their marketing toward the cookie-cutter American culture. We need to open our minds and accept all positive alternative medicines that are scientifically proven to work. It’s just an herb.” Jamilah is a two-time Billabong XXL champ, National Geographic Explorer Top 12 Adventurer 2007, holds the world record for biggest wave ever surfed on the planet by a woman at Jaws in Maui, and is an overall environmentally conscious human being. “I want indigenous people to recover their land, restore the degraded landscapes and filter the pollution from coastal areas of this island. Plus, I want to do this while surfing the biggest waves on Earth!”

But for now, as the ocean remains calm and Patients Without Time await the Hawaii State Legislature to introduce HCR 10, the surfing and Native Hawaiian community remain overwhelmingly anonymous about their ganja use. “The US Federal Government could arrest anyone in Hawaii or any state for any type of marijuana use, medical or recreational, at any given time,” says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project. “But, in the real world, the DEA doesn’t normally go after individuals, including individual patients. But they do go after distributors. There have been new DEA raids on dispensaries in California recently. So certainly, dispensaries, distributors and growers are very much in the crosshairs of the DEA.”

Patients who benefit from cannabis also remain anonymous in Hawaii. “Coming out” or being political is thought to invite US federal government scrutiny – specifically from the DEA – and the possible risk of arrest, harassment of their doctor, and forfeiture of their land. HCR 10 could blow the paranoid doors open for Hawaiian medical marijuana users, while potentially providing jobs for about 1,800 people in Maui. It would grant patients access Guy Ragosta, on the Ko'olau summits of O'ahuGuy Ragosta, on the Ko’olau summits of O’ahuto specific strains of cannabis sativa and indica that treat chronic illness such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV and AIDS. It is also useful in the treatment of such conditions as: Cachexia (wasting syndrome), severe pain, severe nausea, seizures (including those characteristic of epilepsy), severe and persistent muscle spasms (including those characteristic of multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease), or any other medical condition approved by the Department of Health pursuant to administrative rules in response to a request from a physician or potentially qualifying patient.

HCR 10 has nine co-sponsors in the state legislature and Brian Murphy has appointments with four more state representatives. HCR 10 could mean millions of dollars in funding for the UofH and others to conduct research on medical marijuana issues within Hawaii (e.g., vaporizer studies, cataloging different varieties of cannabis and their effect on specific illness, and the ecological effects of different growing methods). “Right now I feel that we are going to get our initiative on the ballot and have the biggest voter turnout ever in 2008,” Brian Murphy says. “I do actually expect a lot of activity this January from our House of Representatives. HCR 10 is still alive and we have nine other bills we are presenting this January. So again, I’m very hopeful that by the November 2008 election Maui County will be creating a program. So it’s not that far away. We’re getting close.”

At Patients Without Time, Brian provides his patients with expertly farmed organic, medical marijuana that eases their pain and their lives. The Guestbook at PWT is a brief catalog of cannabis therapeutics: I had a pretty major injury, I tore my meniscus in my left knee; I got into a car accident, I hurt all over and was very depressed; I have a Scoliosis condition in my spine; I have chronic fatigue; The medical profession decided I should be on Ritalin; I had doctors try to push Oxycontin on me; I was taking Percocet at night and Xanax to make me sleep; I ended up getting an addiction to Vicodin; I just got tired of taking all my medications, morning, noon, and night to go to sleep; Patients Without Time gave me my life back; etc..

Dr. Alfonso Jimenez, author of Medical Marijuana Guide, evaluates patients on O’ahu to qualify them for their Hawaii State medical marijuana card. “In general, you can recommend cannabis indica for body and sleep. Cannabis indica is good for pain. It reduces muscle spasticity. It has anti-inflammatory properties for chronic pain. It changes the perception of pain, which is a unique quality of marijuana. You can think of cannabis sativa as good for depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar, ADD, and for coping with chronic illness. It causes depersonalization, which allows a patient with a chronic illness like HIV or cancer, someone who actually has to live with this disorder, to cope with it on a day-to-day basis. So it allows them a break, if you will, for two to three hours in a day, which may not be a lot for some people who don’t have a chronic illness, but for somebody with cancer who doesn’t have a very long survival rate, for these people, this is very important. My goal is to teach these patients to not look at Western medicine as the authority of certain chronic illnesses. Look for alternative treatments.”

Patients Without Time grow roomPatients Without Time grow roomBut outside Maui, no medical marijuana dispensaries exist in Hawaii and attaining alternative therapies often proves too costly for most island residents, as they are rarely included as a medical insurance option. Sure, thousands of residents on other Hawaiian islands have their medical marijuana cards, but the rules require patients to grow their own or hire someone to grow it for them (up to three mature plants and four immature plants at any time) in their own homes.

“It’s a problem of getting the medical marijuana,” says Hawaii State Representative of South Maui and Vice-Chair of Higher Education, Joe Bertram III. “It’s so hard to grow. Basically, the original Hawaii medical marijuana law gave patients the right to grow their own. And the reality that many policy makers are not aware of is that it’s almost impossible for a layperson to grow their own. To get a good crop every two months that is medicinal quality… forget it. It takes almost a botanist, as you probably know, to produce that type. It’s not just the growing of it – it’s the curing of it, and all the way up to the point where it’s actually going be smoked. Anywhere along the way, it can be ruined by not being cured enough, not enough light, not enough air, CO2, whatever. It’s so difficult to grow that most people still revert to the black market.”

The cost of living on these islands is 30 percent higher than on mainland America. An ounce of top grade marijuana is over $500. These are brutal economics for many here that require medical cannabis. Hawaii’s residents, and over seven million tourists visiting annually, create big demand and high prices, which makes it a difficult market to compete in for the health-challenged who often live on little money. To make it even worse, the Hawaii Green Harvest Operation (the marijuana eradication operations of the US DEA) uses helicopters with
infrared sensors to find and rip out cannabis crops, killing thousands of medicinal plants each year.

Brian Murphy explains why the federal government continues to enforce cannabis prohibition in states that have their own laws. “If you look at the Supreme Court ruling for Angel Raich vs. Gonzales, California cases, it’s all based on an Interstate Commerce law. It’s an outrageous extension of federal power where there should be none. The Supreme Court said marijuana produced in California theoretically could end up in Ohio, therefore the US Dr. Jiminez of Medical Marijuana Hawai'i with cannabis expert, Brian Murphy, in backgroundDr. Jiminez of Medical Marijuana Hawai’i with cannabis expert, Brian Murphy, in backgroundgovernment was constitutionally permitted to prohibit production in California – the federal prerogative trumping state’s rights. The reason we moved to Maui County was we are 3,000 miles from the mainland with the ocean between us. All the Hawaiian Islands have agricultural checkpoints at all points where crops and plants enter and exit. I believe the interstate commerce prerogatives don’t apply here. For me to be a farmer in Maui, I have to go through the Department of Agriculture to have my product shipped to O’ahu. Again, the island living puts a whole different spin on it where the federal government basically cannot use the interstate commerce clause to come in after us, because we are not involved in Interstate Commerce. We don’t affect Interstate Commerce.”

“Hawaii claims that the waters in between the Hawaiian Islands are part of the State of Hawaii, with the position that these are archipelagic waters,” says UofH International Maritime Lawyer Jon Van Dyke. “The federal government takes the position that the waters between the Hawaiian Islands are federal waters, and that once you get beyond three miles out to sea from each island, they become federal waters. But the jurisdiction over ships in international waters requires each vessel to register in their country, and fly the flag of their country. The US has a few ships for security reasons on the high seas. But the official law and US position is that a ship cannot stop or seize another ship, except in certain limited circumstances, such as, if the ship is not flying any flag it can be searched. If it’s a pirate ship or carrying slaves, it can be searched. So there are some exceptions, but the US could not have jurisdiction over other vessels in international waters for marijuana without permission from the country that is flying the flag.”

What might motivate native Hawaiians to regulate and control cannabis on land and at sea? “Generally, native Hawaiians comprise 40 percent of the prison population in the Hawaiian Islands,” claims Jeanne Ohta, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. “We don’t have data on how many are in prison for marijuana charges. In 2005, the Office of the Attorney General reported that 1,113 people were arrested for marijuana related charges; 469 of those were juveniles, 23.5 percent of adult possession arrests were of Hawaiian ethnicity; 29.9 percent of juvenile possession arrests were of Hawaiian ethnicity.”

So, what if HCR 10 passes into law in Maui and begins the pilot project for medical marijuana gardens? Will cannabis-filled ships start floating to O’ahu, Kaua’i, Ni’ihau, Moloka’i, Lanai, Hawaii, and Kaho’olawe, where no medical marijuana dispensaries or cooperative gardens exist and patients currently rely on illegally, sometimes improperly, grown marijuana? Will native Hawaiians claim the right to grow medical marijuana on their homeland with other canoe plants, or will they continue to comprise 40 percent of the prison population and seek out random strains of cannabis on the street? Will Hawaiian surfers “get up, stand up”? We’ll see what happens…

Guy Ragosta, M.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Management, lives in Hawaii where he researches stream ecology and makes environmental film documentaries connecting surfing, water quality, and ethnobotany in Hawaii, Jamaica, and Africa.