Patients criticize Legislature's foot-dragging on medical marijuana

PHOENIX -- Medical marijuana patients and dispensary owners on Thursday blasted a legislative proposal to force yet another reconsideration of whether voters really want to keep the drug legal in Arizona for patients.

Jim Dyer, a retired Tucson attorney, detailed how other medications for his multiple sclerosis left him unable to walk by the time they were effective at dealing with his muscle spasms. Dyer said he found two strains of marijuana that help, one that provides energy during the day and a second to help him sleep at night.

Greg Plunkett, a 46-year-old Navy veteran living in Sun City, told a similar story about how the drug helps him with seizures.

And Rebecca Perry of Peoria said marijuana, which she had to purchase legally before the 2010 voter-approved initiative, is "the only thing I've found to get me through the day.'

None of that swayed Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, from his determination that the issue should be placed back on the 2014 ballot. And he was not swayed by the comments of the patients.

"Are there some people who have legitimate medical conditions and pain?' he said.

"There sure are,' Kavanagh continued. "But to them I would say: No medical authority would say it's helping you. They all say it's harming you.'

And Kavanagh cited a ruling this week by a federal appellate court in Washington which upheld the decision by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to keep marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug -- one which has no legitimate medical uses and cannot be prescribed -- saying that the agency did nothing wrong in concluding there is no data from "adequate and well-controlled clinical trials' that shows otherwise.

Ryan Hurley, an attorney who represents dispensary owners, said that's only because the federal government won't provide the marijuana needed for such studies.

But the court never got to address that issue, with the judges pointing out that challengers never raised it when they sued in the first place.

Kavanagh also cited a report by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission which said close to one out of every eight high schoolers surveyed last year who said they regularly smoke marijuana said they got it from someone with a state-issued medical marijuana card. He said abuses like this may give voters a reason to reconsider their support for the program.

But Ken Sobel, owner of the Green Halo dispensary in Tucson, said Kavanagh is cherry picking his data. He pointed out the same study shows that the percentage of high schoolers who say they have used marijuana in the last 30 days actually declined between 2010 and 2012.

Voters first approved legalizing marijuana and other otherwise-illegal drugs for medical conditions in 1996. But that was overturned the following year by the Legislature.

In 1998 supporters got the issue back on the ballot and the measure was again ratified. But it never took effect because it required doctors to "prescribe' the drugs, something no physician was willing to do because it would put at risk their federal license to prescribe other drugs.

The 2010 measure, which was approved by which deals only with marijuana, gets around that by allowing doctors to "recommend' the drug. That recommendation entitles someone to get a card from the state letting them obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

Kavanagh said the measure, which passed by just 4,340 votes out of nearly 1.7 million ballots statewide, was sold to voters as helping people with "terrible ailments.' He said state health department figures show close to 90 percent of those who obtained cars got them for conditions causing severe and chronic pain, "hard to disprove, easy to fake.'

He also said just 14 doctors have issued half the recommendations.

"There are so many yellow flags that say that this program is full of abuse ... that the voters should be allowed to reconsider.'

Dyer, however, called Kavanagh's plan "insulting' following three separate approvals of the law.

"There's no need for a repeal or anything else,' he said. Dyer said if there is a problem with unauthorized people getting marijuana it is likely coming from unlicensed and unregulated "compassion clubs' which sprang up before the state started licensing dispensaries late last year.

What voters might do remains up in the air.

Hurley cited a telephone survey of 600 Arizonans done at the direction of the national dispensary industry which showed 44 percent of those responding said they strongly support the state medical marijuana law, with another 15 percent saying they support it but do not feel strongly.

But Kavanagh, citing the narrow margin of victory in 2010, said he believes voters, having seen how the system works, will have second thoughts.

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