Card costs could threaten medical marijuana testing bill

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Despite broad support among medical marijuana businesses and patients, a vote by a Senate subcommittee Wednesday demonstrated that legislation to require safety testing of Arizona’s cannabis could face opposition from lawmakers wary of lowering fees for patients.

SB 1420 narrowly advanced through the Senate Government Committee Wednesday by a vote of 4-3. All three dissenting votes came from Republican lawmakers who were initially signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

State senators David Farnsworth, Gail Griffin and John Kavanagh voted against the measure, citing their opposition to a provision in the bill that would lower the costs of patient cards. Currently patient cards cost $150 per year. The bill would lower the cost to $50 for an initial application and $25 for annual renewals.

“I am convinced the medical marijuana industry must be regulated. I think those who are pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana agree on this. It needs to be regulated,” said Farnsworth. However, he added, “I am embarrassed to confess to you today that I signed on to this bill not understanding that it had this [decrease] of fee in it.”

Sheila Polk, the Yavapai County Attorney and co-chair of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, told lawmakers that lowering the fees could increase access by children. Polk cited an attitude survey showing the majority of children in grades 6-12 think "there is no harm in the regular use of pot."

"If we lower the fees, it just makes it all that much easier for our kids to get cards," she said.

To apply for a medical marijuana card, patients must have a doctor's referral for a listed qualifying condition.

The card cost reduction was added as a compromise to dispensary owners who have expressed concerns that mandated safety testing could increase the cost of some products to patients, said Arizona Marijuana Industry Trade Association founder Demitri Downing.

"The industry would not support advancing a bill that only required more regulatory provisions without improving access for the patients. We believe they go hand-in-hand. That is the compromise we had arranged," Downing said. 

Wednesday’s action by the Senate Government Committee was the first vote on the measure, which was introduced by State Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu) with 79 co-sponsors. There are 90 members of the state legislature.

[RELATED: Arizona lawmakers call for medical marijuana testing; end to 'Wild West' mentality]

The signs of division within the Senate Government Committee are significant because of the high bar needed to pass legislation amending a voter-approved initiative like the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. To pass, SB 1420 will need approval by three-fourths of both the House and the Senate.

"Hopefully, Republicans in the state legislature will understand that this bill, as drafted, is the best option for the State of Arizona," Downing said. "We're hoping they will listen to their constituents and jump on board."

In the announcement of SB 1420, lawmakers cited an investigation by Arizona's Family that found mold on medical marijuana sold at a Phoenix dispensary.

[RELATED: Lawmaker wants safety testing of Arizona's medical marijuana]

Independent test results found levels of mold on three of the four samples that would not meet standards in some other states. Unlike most states with medical marijuana programs, Arizona has not established contaminant standards for cannabis or required that cannabis products be tested in any way.

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

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This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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