Will Payson Patients Grow Their Own Pot?

Medical marijuana law will let rural residents 25 miles from a dispensary cultivate up to 12 plants

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Residents of Rim Country with certain chronic diseases might end up free to grow their own marijuana next year, under the terms of the apparently approved medical marijuana initiative.

State election officials said they expect that when the final votes are certified on Nov. 29, Proposition 203 will eke out the narrowest possible victory.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Will Humble said his department will draw up draft regulations by early February and will post final regulations in March.

Starting in April, the department will take applications from people who want to operate dispensaries and patients who want to grow their own because they live at least 25 miles from a licensed dispensary. Caregivers can also apply on behalf of patients too ill to pick up their own medication.

Patients in much of Gila County may end up living so far from a dispensary that they could apply to grow their own marijuana supply, depending on how the state allocates the 124 certificates for licensed dispensaries.

It could take months — or even a year or more — for a dispensary to actually set up shop after getting a license, noted Laura Oxley, a spokesperson for the Department of Health Services.

The initiative set the number of nonprofit marijuana dispensaries at a number equal to one-tenth of the number of pharmacies in the state — which would be 124 this year. The initiative specified that the state must license at least one dispensary in each county.

Gila County has only about 54,000 people, so it might not rate more than one dispensary. If that dispensary ends up in Globe, then patients and licensed caretakers in Rim Country could get certified to grow their own, Oxley said.

“Some of that will be determined by where we get applications from. If we got applications from Payson and Globe, then they would both be considered. But we really can’t say much of anything until we get through that first set of rules. The real answer is that we don’t know where the dispensaries will be except there will be at least one in every county.”

“If Payson decided it wanted a dispensary and Globe wanted one, they would be able to do that,” said Andrew Myer, campaign manager for the Proposition 203 campaign. “It will be a competitive process” for getting one of the 124 licenses.

Health department officials say they’re already working on the regulations, borrowing many of the specifics from some of the other 14 states that have approved medical marijuana laws.

Initiative backers say that they’re confident the state will implement the initiative. Voters approved a similar initiative in 1996. The Legislature refused to implement that initiative for lack of federal rules. Voters tried again in 1998 with a slightly different version. However, that initiative would have required a doctor’s prescription, but federal law bars any prescriptions for marijuana, which is a Schedule I, forbidden drug.

The current initiative sought to skirt those problems by requiring patients to get a doctor’s “recommendation” rather than a “prescription.”

The initiative sets up the criteria for getting a recommendation for up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana in any 14-day period. A qualifying patient would have to have a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana for a condition approved by DHS or one of the following conditions specified in the initiative: cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Hepatitis C, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, agitation from Alzheimer’s disease and a chronic disease that produces wasting syndrome, chronic or severe pain, severe nausea, seizures and persistent muscle spasms.

The Department of Health Services hasn’t yet come up with the rules that will implement the initiative and establish things like how patients with any of those conditions will qualify for a card — which allows them to either buy the drug from a pharmacy from within 25 miles or grow up to 12 plants in an enclosed, locked greenhouse or other facility.

DHS officials say they’re proceeding on the assumption that the initiative will take effect. It could cost as much as $600,000 to set up the system, but the initiative authorizes fees and taxes that will recover all the costs of developing and monitoring the system.

Voter Protection Act

Myer noted that several legislative leaders have said they would like to find some way to block implementation of the initiative — perhaps by preventing DHS from spending any money to set up the system.

However, Myer said that the voters in 1998 approved the Voter Protection Act, which prohibits any government agency from hindering the implementation of a voter-approved ballot measure. Backers of the proposition are counting on the Voter Protection Act this time to force the state to implement the legislation.

The Legislature might also try to foil the initiative by imposing a huge tax on marijuana sales.

“They could try to tax it out of existence,” said Myer, “with a $1,000 an ounce tax, but then they would run afoul of the Voter Protection Act.”

Myer noted that the 1996 initiative barred a tax on marijuana, but that passed before the Voter Projection Act, so he said he expects the Legislature will impose some sort of a sales tax on the drug. In other states, marijuana sales have become a strong source of state revenue.

In states like California and Colorado — with a much more open-ended system and for-profit dispensaries — the cost of the drug from the dispensaries is about the same as the cost of the drug on the street.

“We’re trying to avoid the prices we’re seeing in California and Colorado — because many of these are very ill, terminally ill patients — and they can’t afford that,” said Myer.

Ironically, those marijuana dispensaries in other states have proven very lucrative for the federal government as well. Federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal drug, so the dispensaries can’t deduct any normal businesses expenses on their federal taxes. As a result, most pay about 35 percent of their gross sales in federal taxes, said Myer.

The initiative requires patients to submit signed, written recommendation from a doctor saying marijuana would provide relief or treat a specified “debilitating medical condition.”

The initiative anticipates that the dispensaries will each mostly grow their own supply, although Oxley said DHS must draw up rules that will regulate issues like whether a dispensary can import the drug from existing dispensaries in states that have already established medical marijuana systems.

The initiative also includes various specific protections for people using marijuana in accordance with the regulations.

For instance, a landlord can’t refuse to lease to a patient and an employer cannot discriminate. An employer also could not punish a card-holding patient for testing positive for pot, unless the person was impaired or possessed or used pot on the premises during business hours.

The initiative also specified restrictions on use even for card-holding patients. Such patients could not perform any task while under the influence that constituted negligence, use the drug at a school or correctional facility, smoke on public transportation, operate a vehicle or aircraft while under the influence, require coverage of the cost of the drug from a health plan, require the owner of private property to allow the use of marijuana on that property, or prevent nursing homes and other facilities from imposing reasonable restrictions.

Myer said he’s confident that after this third voter-endorsement of medical marijuana, the state will finally implement the law.

He noted that the passage of the initiative in the same election that voters supported many conservative Republicans who opposed it provides evidence of a libertarian streak in the Arizona electorate.

“What it comes down to is that Arizona voters this year were anti-government. Arizonans are libertarians more than they are conservatives and there is a sense in this state that they don’t want the government telling them what medication they can take and what they can and can’t discuss with their physician.”

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