Arizona lawmakers call for medical marijuana testing; end to 'Wild West' mentality

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A Republican lawmaker has persuaded nearly the entire Legislature to sign on in support of his proposal to require medical marijuana to be tested for mold and agricultural chemicals.

The proposal from Sen. Sonny Borrelli would appropriate $2 million from the state's huge medical marijuana fund to do the testing. It also would lower the $150 annual fee that patients need to pay to get a medical marijuana card to $50 and $25 for a renewal.

Borrelli has 78 co-sponsors for his measure, including the Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. There are 90 members of the Legislature.

The Lake Havasu City lawmaker said Monday that he wants to ensure patients know what they are consuming.

"Customers need to know what's going on with this stuff they are buying that they are convinced that it's going to help them," Borrelli said.

"Right now, there's no regulation whatsoever. It's the Wild West. There are some good dispensaries out there that are doing this right, and we want to make sure the others do the same," he said.

During the announcement, lawmakers referenced an investigation by Arizona's Family last month that found mold on medical marijuana sold in Phoenix.

Co-sponsor Rep. Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) said after the report, the bill gained traction with some cannabis business owners who had previously opposed testing due to concerns about additional cost.

"The opposition kind of went away at that point," he said.

[RELATED: Lab tests find mold on medical marijuana sold in Phoenix; 'It should be pulled off the shelf']

The proposal was embraced by the Arizona Marijuana Industry Trade Association.

"The industry isn't necessarily going to be jumping up and down for slightly more regulations, but the industry has to look at it as a whole," said MITA founder Demitri Downing. "The end result is best for the citizens, the patients, and the voters."

[RELATED: Business owners weigh in on new bill designed to regulate medical marijuana safety]

Borrelli's proposal would require the state Department of Agriculture to test for pesticides and other chemicals, paid for with the $2 million from the fund. The Health Services Department would set up testing to ensure marijuana is free of mold, and potentially write rules on potency testing, using money currently sitting in the fund.

"From an industry perspective I am certainly not opposed to it," said Laura Bianchi, who heads the cannabis department at Scottsdale-based Rose Law Group and represents a large number of companies growing, distributing and selling medical marijuana. "In fact I think testing requirements are an important component of any medical product."

The program would be funded by the state's medical marijuana fund, which has $35 million available and is growing by the year because fees far exceed the costs of running the program.

Bianchi said the lack of a testing requirement is a "huge gap" in the state' voter-approved medical marijuana program. She noted that many retailers are doing testing either in-house or through third-party labs.

She criticized the current $150 fee patients must pay annually to get or renew a medical marijuana card once they have a doctor's recommendation, calling it "ridiculous."

"No. 1, it's something that a physician has said will help them medically, but it's not covered by insurance so the cost can be great," Bianchi said. "And then to have them pay that every year, I just think that's an astronomical fee."

A group of patients sued the state over the fee in 2016, arguing it was set well above what voters intended when they passed the 2010 initiative legalizing sales. A judge tossed the lawsuit, saying they didn't have the right to sue over an administrative decision.

Borrelli said the lower fee is a no-brainer.

"It's kind of hard for even the department to justify sitting on (nearly) $40 million," he said. "So $50 is reasonable, a renewal fee of $25 is very reasonable."

Because the proposal amends a voter-approved law, it will require a three-fourths majority of the Legislature.

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