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The number of Big Island residents registered in Hawaii’s medical marijuana program increased nearly 20 percent in 2016 and by more than 200 people in the last quarter of the year alone.

That’s according to recent data from the state Department of Health, which shows 6,386 Hawaii County patients were registered in the program at the end of 2016, up from 6,182 in September and 5,330 in December 2015.

Statewide, 15,334 patients were registered last month, up from 13,150 the previous year.

“After the Legislature passed the dispensary bill (in 2015), more and more patients now feel it’s OK to … get their doctor’s recommendation,” said Andrea Tischler of Hilo, chairwoman of the Big Island chapter of Americans for Safe Access and a medical marijuana patient who thinks the increase will continue “quite substantially” once dispensaries open.

Eight companies throughout the state are drafting plans to open Hawaii’s first medical marijuana dispensaries. Hawaii legalized cannabis for medical purposes in 2000 but until recently never provided patients a way to legally buy it.

Hawaii Island’s two initial dispensary licenses were awarded to Lau Ola, a company managed by former banana farmer Richard Ha, and Hawaiian Ethos, a company led by venture capitalist Bill Richardson.

Despite the patient increase, DOH data shows the number of caregivers — statewide and locally — dropped substantially during the past year.

There were 493 caregivers registered on the Big Island last month, down from 1,056 caregivers in December 2015. Statewide the caregiver count dropped from 2,849 at the end of 2015 to 1,268 last month.

Tischler attributes the decrease to state law that calls to eliminate the caregiver program by 2018. She said she plans to support legislation to reinstate the caregiver program, should it be introduced during the 2017 legislative session that began Wednesday.

Data shows marijuana patients are registered by 102 physicians and seven advanced practice registered nurses. More than 67 percent use marijuana for severe pain and 13 percent for muscle spasms. About two-thirds of patients are male and more than 60 percent are older than age 46.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@nullhawaiitribune-herald.com.