Medical marijuana patients claim state permit price too high

PHOENIX — Calling the fees illegally high, an attorney for medical marijuana patients is asking the Court of Appeals to force state health officials to slash what they charge people to get the state-issued permit they need to buy the drug.

Sean Berberian said Monday that $150 that patients must pay annually is far more than the state Department of Health Services needs to administer the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act which allows people with certain medical conditions to use the drug. He said the 2010 voter-approved law makes it clear that the agency cannot simply bank the proceeds.

Berberian said this is more than an administrative bottleneck. He told Capitol Media Services that all the evidence suggests that both Gov. Doug Ducey and predecessor Jan Brewer both have directed the agency to keep the fees as high as possible to deter patients from getting the drug.

And the attorney also said this isn’t just an academic exercise. He said the fees are a significant hardship for the people he represents.

The new legal filing comes six months after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry rejected similar arguments.

She did not dispute the allegations that the state is collecting far more than it needs. But Gentry said it’s not up to her to force the state to lower its costs.

Berberian said he hopes to prove to the Court of Appeals that her ruling is not legally sound.

What appears not to be in doubt are the numbers.

Figures obtained by Capitol Media Services show the health department collected $24.9 million in fees from patients, caregivers, dispensary owners and growers in the last fiscal year. The expenses in that same period were $11.2 million.

So far this budget year the data show revenues of $6.0 million against $2.8 million in expenses.

And as of Monday, health officials said the balance in the account is nearly $38.1 million, more than three times as much as needed to administer the program on an annual basis.

That, said Berberian, is illegal.

The 2010 law allows medical marijuana patients to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of the drug every two weeks from state-regulated dispensaries.

But sales can be made only to those with a state-issued medical marijuana ID card. And that card, which has to be renewed annually, cost $150.

Berberian said Lisa Becker, one of his clients, has suffered for years from a series of ailments. He said doctors gave her four different anti-nausea drugs and opiates to manage her pain.