Medical Pot Sales in AZ Could Start As Early As Mid-'11

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New Arizona State Flag
PHOENIX - Patients hoping to get medical marijuana now that voters have approved the law should not hold their breath.

State health director Will Humble said it could be summer 2011, or possibly even that fall, before all the applications to distribute legal marijuana are processed and the selected facilities are set up.

Humble said Monday that Proposition 203 gives the Department of Health Services 120 days from the time the election results are certified - now set for Nov. 29 - to come up with rules and regulations for how the system will operate.

Theoretically, he said, that should allow doctors to begin writing recommendations for patients in early April, but patients still may not have any place to legally purchase their drugs by then.

At the end of that 120 days, Humble said, his agency has to start reviewing what he expects to be hundreds of applications by groups wanting to operate one or more marijuana dispensaries around the state. He can approve only 125 permits, by law.

Humble said he probably will check each application for its operating and security plans, and award the licenses to only the most qualified. The alternative is a simple lottery process, which he said he does not favor.

"And remember, they've got to get their cultivation facility up and running so they have an inventory that's legitimate," he said. "I don't want this to be inventory that comes off the street or from Mexico or something. This has got to be from cultivation facilities inside the state."

But Andrew Myers, the campaign manager for Proposition 203, said patients may not have to wait that long because the proposition allows those who are at least 25 miles from a state-regulated dispensary to grow their own.

"Patients will be given ID cards before dispensaries will be licensed," he said. "So, at the outset, the first batch of patients are all going to be able to grow, for a year, until their renewal comes up."

Humble said he's still researching that question.

He said everything else to make the system work will be more complex.

Humble said there needs to be a secure computer system to track the drugs and the users. And, he said, there needs to be an inventory system to ensure everything that starts out as seeds in a legal cultivation facility winds up being sold through a legal dispensary, and only to a legitimate cardholder.

"That's not as simple as it might sound on the surface," he said.

He said dispensaries need round-the-clock access to the database of patients who have state-issued cards to verify that person is entitled to purchase marijuana. The system will keep cardholders from buying more than 2 1/2 ounces every two weeks, the limit in the new law.

Finally, law enforcement needs the same access to determine if the person they stopped is entitled to have that bag of marijuana.

Of greater concern is keeping some doctors from becoming the kind of "recommendation mills" he said have popped up in Colorado, Humble said.

"If we have a loose interpretation of what a doctor-patient relationship is ... you could end up with situations like they have in Colorado where folks are walking into a doctor's office for a 15-minute appointment and $150 bucks on the barrelhead, they're walking away with a recommendation," Humble said.

Of particular concern are those seeking the drug for chronic pain, which he said is difficult to measure and has become the justification for 90 percent of the marijuana recommendations in Colorado.

Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services/Arizona Daily Star