- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii is one step closer to having a system of medical marijuana dispensaries nearly 15 years after the drug was legalized in the state.

The House of Representatives approved a bill Tuesday that would pave the way for at least 26 dispensaries that could open in every county.

Critics of the proposal say the plan puts the state on a slippery slope toward full legalization of marijuana.

But supporters argue that the bill is about showing compassion for nearly 13,000 people with conditions such as epilepsy or pain that are alleviated by the drug. Although medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii since 2000, there has been no real legal way for patients to get the drug, leaving most to grow it themselves or buy it on the black market.

Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang, the Republican minority leader, said she had reservations about the proposal, but supported it because it would help an epileptic child in her district who has no legal way to obtain the medical marijuana oil she uses to treat her condition.

“I come from a pretty conservative community, but I think most of us can agree that if it helps this little girl - and for her this is a medicine - then we want to do something to help fill out the law, which essentially is half a law right now,” said Fukumoto Chang, who represents Mililani.

“This mother of this child in this district has to grow her own marijuana,” Fukumoto Chang added. “She has to get home every night through traffic and work on this.”

Republican Rep. Gene Ward said the drug should be sold in ordinary pharmacies, but Rep. Kaniela Ing countered that medical marijuana can’t be sold in pharmacies because it isn’t legal under federal law.

Lawmakers are tackling hundreds of bills in advance of a legislative deadline. Any bill that hasn’t passed out of its chamber of origin by Thursday will die.

Here’s a sampling of the bills that were passed in both legislative chambers on Tuesday:

- RAIL TAX - Lawmakers in both chambers advanced proposals that would allow an extension of a rail tax to fund Oahu’s financially troubled rapid transit project. Officials estimate the project may face a deficit up to $900 million.

- NO SMOKING - Minors under age 21 wouldn’t be allowed to smoke traditional or electronic cigarettes, and electronic cigarettes would be banned in condominiums and on public hospital grounds under proposals passed by the Senate. Critics say people who are old enough to serve their country should be allowed to make their own decisions on smoking. A proposal passed by the House would ban electronic cigarettes everywhere that traditional cigarettes weren’t allowed.

- HELPING HOMELESS - People convicted of sitting or lying down on the sidewalk in districts where it’s prohibited would have a way to vacate the conviction under a proposal passed by the Senate. Another bill the Senate approved would give homeless people the right to privacy when it comes to their personal belongings, which are often confiscated during city raids.

- RESCUING HOSPITALS - A public hospital on Maui could enter into a public-private partnership and create a new nonprofit corporation under a bill approved by the House.

- GENDER IDENTITY - The Hawaii House approved a bill that would allow transgender people to change the gender designation on their birth certificates without having surgery. They could get a note from a doctor instead.

- SEX TRAFFICKING - A bill that would create a victim-centered approach to prosecuting sex trafficking passed in the Senate.

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