Gila County leads the state in the number of medical marijuana cardholders per capita, according to a report released Friday.
A year into the Arizona Medical Marijuana Program, Gila County has nine cardholders for every 1,000 residents. The county easily beat out Maricopa County for the title, which only has 4.7 patients per 1,000 residents.
A report by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and University of Arizona found Yavapai and Coconino had the second and third highest number of per capita cardholders. Yuma and Santa Cruz counties came in last.
A relative handful of doctors have written most of the recommendations required to apply for a card.
In 2011, voters made Arizona the 14th state to adopt a medicinal marijuana program. Gila County residents quickly jumped at the opportunity to use the drug legally.
In addition to having the most per capita users, Gila County also led the state with those authorized to grow medical marijuana for their own use (8.3 per 1,000 residents).
Sheelah Golliglee, with Nature’s Harvest, said she isn’t surprised.
Nature’s Harvest helps residents go get a doctor’s recommendation, apply for a card and secure medicine at its offices in Payson and Lakeside.
Golliglee said the company has helped patients sign up for the program since it went into effect in April 2011.
In roughly 10 months, Nature’s Harvest helped 700 people receive medicinal marijuana identification cards. Surprising enough, most of the cardholders are older, she said.
While statewide, males age 18-30 are the most common cardholders, in Rim Country, Nature’s Harvest more often sees folks over 55, Golliglee said.
On par with state statistics, most of those patients complain of severe and chronic pain.
Golliglee said she has personally seen a number of people end years of dependence on narcotic painkillers necessitated by some accident or ailment when they switch to medical marijuana.
It costs only $150 to register for the program with the state, which routinely approves virtually all the applications. This high approval rate has raised concerns for some who fear the program has simply become a way for 20-something potheads to smoke marijuana legally.
Currently, a doctor writes a “script” for medicinal marijuana and a patient turns in an application with the ADHS.
In the first year of the program, even Will Humble, director of the ADHS, questioned the 98 percent approval rate.
“Perhaps the most striking thing in the report is that 24 doctors have signed about 80 percent of the 30,000 or so certifications in Year 1,” he wrote, “and a handful of doctors wrote more than 1,000 certifications. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these doctors aren’t acting in the best interests of their patients — but it does give us some insight into which ones we should be focusing on to ensure that they’re meeting our certification expectations.”
Humble went on to say the agency’s medical director met with the directors of the four medical licensing boards to brainstorm ways to ensure doctors “are truly acting in their patients’ best interests, complying with each licensing board’s expectations, and meeting our standards for certifications.”
Humble said they are looking at offering intensive medical education among high frequency certifiers.