In-depth look at medical marijuana in Arizona

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by Natalie Rivers

azfamily.com

Posted on February 9, 2011 at 6:30 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 9 at 8:19 PM

PHOENIX - Cannabis, weed, reefer, marijuana, however you refer to it, it is now legal medicine in Arizona. By a 5,000-vote margin, Arizona voters said yes to medical marijuana, but the battle over legalization doesn’t end there.

As the state starts to write the rules, everyone seems to have an opinion. From law enforcement, to those who are ill, to the people writing the rules and those who support it, every side has a hand in how Arizona will implement the medical marijuana law.

Some see it as an opportunity and others a liability, but it is the law and all sides have a stake in getting it right as Arizona becomes the newest state to legalize medical marijuana.

In this article read about the Arizona Department of Health Services’ role in making the rules, learn more about the dispensaries, see who is able to own a dispensary and grow marijuana, and understand some of the concerns over the new law.

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES

Once Proposition 203 passed in the November election, it was all hands on deck at the Department of Health Services. It is up to DHS to write the rules for medical marijuana. They are the rules the entire state will be following.

"Our primary goal is to make sure this ends up a medical marijuana program and not a recreational marijuana program like that's happened in just about every other state that has a medical marijuana law,” Will Humble said.

Humble is the man who's been put at the center of Arizona's medical marijuana law.

As the director of DHS, it's his job to draft the rules Arizona will follow.

"We're in charge of substance abuse for the state and here we are charged with implementing a medical marijuana law, which if we get it wrong will end up becoming a recreational marijuana law which would then undermine our mission which is to try and avoid substance abuse especially in teens and youth,” Humble said.

Humble is the first to admit he's extremely frustrated.

"We're being distracted right now by this medical marijuana thing,” he said.

With a deadline looming, Humble has no choice but to make medical marijuana a priority.

THE DISPENSARIES

Arizona will be home to 124 dispensaries, which is 10 percent of the number of pharmacies currently in business. That means every one of Arizona's 15 counties will have at least one dispensary.

The dispensaries are very non-descript, usually with no more than a small sign.

The Medical Marijuana Association believes there is a lot of unnecessary concern surrounding dispensaries.

They hope they will blend into neighborhoods and become like dispensaries in Denver, where patients not only get medical marijuana, but also receive other services like massage, acupuncture and even yoga.

"I think at the end of the day people are going to be pleasantly surprised by how seamlessly these facilities fit into the fabric of the community and how people, unless they're looking for them, probably won't even notice that they're there,” Andrews Meyers said.

At a dispensary, patients will be able to buy 2.5 ounces every 14 days.

If you take the average price in Colorado, $400 an ounce, you are looking at $1,000 for the maximum amount you are permitted to purchase at one time.

OWNING, GROWING, PROCESSING

Phoenix started accepting land-use permit applications in January with hopes of getting a jump on the process.
   
The city created three kinds of medical marijuana land uses: one will be a retail or sales dispensary, the second a grow facility and third an infusion facility where marijuana is put into food or balms.

Phoenix has put a 2,000-square-foot cap on the size of each facility and it has established restrictions on where owners can set up shop.

"What we're looking at doing is spreading these out throughout the city so we didn't have a concentration of all these facilities in one area,” said Larry Tom with Planning and Development. "If you had a medical marijuana dispensary or cultivation facility or infusion facility, you can't be within a mile of a similar facility.”

Phoenix is also requiring medical marijuana facilities be a certain distance away from schools, bars, homes and churches.    

Even with all these restrictions the city predicts Phoenix will have dozens of dispensaries.

"Forty on up within the city, there's no limit, the state's not limiting on how many of them will be in each municipality or each county," Tom said. "It depends on the free market, so if the demand is there, there may be more within the city of Phoenix.”

To be eligible to open up a dispensary, you must have lived in Arizona for three years. You must have proof you have hired a physician to be the medical director, who must either be on-site or on-call at all times.

All your finances have to be in order, meaning you can't be in default on a government-issued loan, have unpaid taxes or owe court-ordered child support.

You also can't be a member of law enforcement or a health department employee.

CAREGIVER ABUSE

Regulating dispensaries is one issue, but what about the caregivers who are also able to grow marijuana?

According to the Humble, it's a loophole that could turn medical marijuana into a recreational problem.

"We're going to do background checks on the caregivers to make sure they're not felons, I mean we have that authority, but we don't have much else,” Humble said.

The way the medical marijuana initiative is written, each authorized caregiver is allowed to treat up to five patients and if each of those patients lives more than 25 miles from the nearest dispensary that caregiver can grow up to 12 plants for each patient.
   
"That's 60 plants, in these days, with hydroponics and the new technology going into this marijuana production, 60 plants is a lot of pot," Humble said. "We don't inspect them, we don't license them, we can't, and it’s basically the Wild West out there when it comes to these caregivers."

This part of the law concerns lawmakers.

"Are you going to grow marijuana in a house or so on, so many miles away from the closest dispensary?” Arpaio said. “Wait a minute. How do you know how much they're growing? Are you going to ship a little extra out the back door?”

Andrew Myers, the co-director of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, contends that won't happen.

"The idea that these caregivers are going to be able to create this immense amount of medication really isn't the case,” Meyers said.

Myers admits until dispensaries are up and running, which he believes will take about a year, caregivers will be the ones growing the majority of marijuana.

He points out there isn't an alternative.

“If there's no dispensary, and there's no other alternative in the way people can personally cultivate, then you're forcing them back into the hands of the criminal market and the Mexican drug cartels, which is what we were trying to avoid in the first place with this kind of law,” he said. "Any diversion of medication to someone who's not a patient is a Class 2 felony under the law. That's the same as manslaughter, punishable up to 25 years in prison.”

That is true if a caregiver is caught dealing pot for recreational purposes, but as it stands right now there are loopholes.

"Those loopholes regarding those caregivers and qualified patients that live more than 25 miles from the nearest dispensary, really sort of open up the system to recreational use,” Humble said.

The final rules are expected to be released at the end of March and then in April the law will go into effect.

Marijuana sales will begin this summer after dispensaries are set up and are able to cultivate the drug.

Arizona's marijuana mandate has yet to be finalized and that's why the Arizona Department of Health Services wants public input.
 
Here is a list of four upcoming public meetings:

Feb. 14
Flagstaff City Hall, Council Chambers
211 W. Aspen Ave.
10 a.m.-1 p.m.

Feb. 15
ASU Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law
The Great Hall
1100 S. McAllister Ave., Tempe
3:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.

Feb. 16
U of A James E. Rodgers College of Law
Ares Auditorium
1201 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson
3 p.m.-6 p.m.

Feb. 17
ASU Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law
The Great Hall
1100 S. McAllister Ave., Tempe
9 a.m.-noon

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