PHOENIX (3TV/CBS5) -- A new bill would make Arizona’s medical marijuana program more affordable for patients by slashing cardholder renewal fees.
The state currently charges $150 per year for patient cards and requires an annual referral from a physician, which can bring the total annual cost to around $300.
Families that wish to use medical marijuana to treat a child with a qualifying condition must pay the state fee twice each year to obtain two cards -- one for the child and one for the parent caregiver.
SB 1138 would lower the costs by making the initial $150 card application good for the first two years without a second doctor’s referral. After that, cards would have to be renewed annually at a cost of $50 per year – one-third of the current price.
Republican state Sen. Sonny Borrelli (Lake Havasu) is the sponsor.
“What I'm trying to do is cut some red tape and make it easier on our admin people because the Department of Health is overwhelmed,” Borrelli said.
“They have such a short time to get a card out, I see no reason why it shouldn't last two years.”
Borrelli sponsored legislation last session that would have required safety testing of Arizona's medical marijuana for mold and pesticides for the first time. An early draft of the legislation also included a provision to lower card costs, but the measure failed.
Critics worry that lower costs will entice less-serious patients to seek out cards for recreation, not medicine, and could indirectly lead to more underage use.
“About 25 percent of kids who use are getting their marijuana from someone with a medical marijuana card,” Sheila Polk of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy said, citing statistics from the latest Arizona Youth Survey.
“What we all ought to be doing is coming up with strategies to educate our kids and prevent marijuana use,” she added.
Card and dispensary fees generate more than $14 million a year for the Arizona Department of Health Services, but the voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act restricts how that money can be spent. The act mandates that money from fees can only be spent on administration costs.
“The state can’t legally spend all of the money that it’s collecting,” said Steve White, the CEO of Harvest.
White’s dispensary was part of an unsuccessful lawsuit that attempted to force the state to lower patient card fees. He said the fee structure was established before Arizona's medical marijuana program launched, but lawmakers have been reluctant to change it for political reasons.
“You're left with a situation where the fees don't accurately reflect the cost of administering the program,” he said. “It's a tremendous expense for a lot of families, particularly when you're talking about an expense that allows them access to medicine.”
If card costs don’t drop, White said the state will continue to build a surplus it can’t spend. The surplus already sits at nearly $55 million.
Polk said lawmakers should amend state law to allow the Department of Health Services to spend surplus funds on other priorities, such as campaigns to reduce teen marijuana use.
Any change to the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act requires a supermajority because of state laws designed to protect voter-approved initiatives. SB 1138 will need the support of three-fourths of both the House and the Senate to pass.