Sun, Oct. 20

State changes medical marijuana laws to benefit users

VVN/Chris Myers & Bill Helm

VVN/Chris Myers & Bill Helm

PHOENIX -- Arizona’s nearly 200,000 medical marijuana users will save $150 a year -- if not more -- under the terms of legislation signed by the governor.

Current law requires those who have certain medical conditions to get recertified by their doctor annually to keep the state-issued card allowing them to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. That card costs $150 each time.

The new law says cards issued from now on will be good for two years. That saves not only the annual fee for the card but also the cost of an annual doctor’s visit.

Another provision of the same law requires state health officials issuing licenses for new medical marijuana dispensaries to give preference to areas where the one that was located there has since moved. This is designed to limit how far patients in rural areas have to travel.

And the law sets up a process that beginning next year will require the testing of medical marijuana and products made from the plant to be tested for both impurities as well as potency.

The heart of the legislation requires that all marijuana products sold in Arizona be examined for everything from microbes and heavy metals to pesticides and herbicides. State-regulated laboratories also would be required to look for solvents and other chemicals left over after the leaves and flowers are processed into something else.

A key provision in SB 1494 establishes a special “medical marijuana testing advisory council’’ to come up with the rules for what is acceptable as well as what can be done with samples that don’t meet the new standards, whether that means fixing the problem of disposing of the drugs.

Members of this same council is supposed to come up with the rules for determining the potency of what’s being sold.

Arizona voters approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2010. It allows those with a doctor’s recommendation to get a card from the state Department of Health Services allowing them to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of the drug every two weeks.

Nearly 200,000 Arizonans now have those cards.

But here’s the thing: There’s no one looking over what’s being sold in those state-regulated dispensaries.

And there’s a lot of it being sold.

In just April, the most recent month for which data is available, state health officials say the reports they got show more than 13,000 pounds of the drug were sold.

But efforts to impose a testing scheme have been thwarted amid disputes over both the procedures for testing and the standards that will be imposed.

This new law seeks to navitage that dispute by giving the industry a major role in determining all that.

The proposed committee of at least 12 members -- the health director can appoint others -- includes representatives from the group that represents dispensary owners, a cannabis testing association, a cannabis trade group, cultivators and those who manufacture edibles. Also on the panel will be a patient, a designated caregiver, a health care provider who specializes in drug treatment disorders and a representative of the Department of Public Safety.

Most significant, this testing isn’t just meant for state officials. Once it gets implemented next year, patients are entitled to get results “immediately on request.’’

The legislation also allows other benefits for medical marijuana users that kick in before next year. One pis that the cards issued to users by the health department would now be good for two years to avoid the $150 renewal fee. It also would eliminate a patient having to go to a doctor to get recertified as eligible every year.

Then there’s that question of convenience.

When the law was first approved in 2010 it spelled out that there can be one dispensary for every 10 pharmacies in the state.

As it turned out, the permissible number worked out to be roughly equivalent with the 126 “community health analysis areas’’ in the state. So state health officials chose to issue one license for each CHAA.

But here’s the thing: The rules allowed those who got the licenses to pack up and go elsewhere after three years. And many chose to migrate to urban areas, leaving residents of some rural sections of the state with few, if any, options.

Since that time, the number of dispensaries allowed has grown.

So this proposal would spell out that first priority has to go to anyone who is willing to set up shop in a CHAA which previously had been served with a dispensary in a location that is at least 25 miles from another operation.

If there are licenses remaining, they would go to those who would establish a dispensary at least 25 miles from the nearest shop, regardless of whether there had been a dispensary there before.

That 25 miles is not arbitrary.

It stems from the fact that the original 2010 law spells out that any medical marijuana user located at least 25 miles from a dispensary is entitled to grow up to 12 plants.

That escape clause has caused concern among health and law enforcement officials because, unlike state-regulated dispensaries, there is no requirement for the grow-your-own crowd to keep track of or report where the marijuana goes.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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