Arizona starts medical marijuana implementation
Now that it's clear that Arizona voters have approved medical marijuana, the Department of Health Services is scrambling to meet the four-month requirement to implement the law.
Medical users could be legally smoking marijuana by next summer, Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) Director Will Humbles said in a press conference Monday.
After more than a week of medical marijuana 'nay' votes being consistently ahead during counting, Maricopa County's provisional-ballot voters pushed Proposition 203's 'yea' votes into the lead at the end of this past week.
Maricopa was the only county still counting Nov. 2 general election ballots past Friday's statutory deadline. Maricopa Elections spokesperson Yvonne Reed said budget cuts precluded two ballot-counting shifts that had sped up counting in the past.
Most of those remaining ballots were provisional ballots, Reed said. Provisional ballot voters generally made an error, such as voting in the wrong precinct or neglecting to bring the proper ID.
Reed didn't want to speculate on why a majority of provisional ballot voters supported Prop. 203, but at least one other person had a theory that it was because they tended to be younger.
"Who forgets their ID or goes to the wrong polling place?" said Prescott psychiatrist Ed Gogek, vice chair of the Keep Arizona Drug Free group that formed to oppose Prop. 203. "It's people who are younger, who move more often and change their address."
The ballot measure won in only three counties: Pima, Coconino and Santa Cruz. The extra 43,574 unofficial 'yes' votes in Pima and the sheer number of Maricopa voters were the deciding factors. Maricopa has 58 percent of the state's 1.7 million voters and the county's no-vote tally was only 4,026 votes higher than the 'yes' tally. The ballot measure got 45 percent of Yavapai's 79,905 votes. Results will be official Nov. 29.
"I see this as a threat to the quality of life in Arizona," Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said of the new law.
Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh's comments were even stronger. "The voting public was misguided by the proponents of medical marijuana and they will realize their mistake when they see bodies lying in the highway," Waugh said.
Polk said she worries about the fact that the new law will allow people to get medical marijuana for chronic pain - an issue that Humble also cited Monday during an ADHS press conference.
Prop. 203 charges ADHS with creating rules and issuing approvals for medical marijuana cardholders, dispensaries and growers. The proposition gives the agency only four months after Nov. 29 to complete its rulemaking process.
ADHS hopes to have draft rules out for public comment by mid-December, then refine the rules before a second round of public comments.
People could start applying for medical marijuana cards as early as early April, Humble said. But they're not likely to be able to immediately buy legal pot, because early April also is the soonest that dispensaries could get approvals to grow marijuana. Humble estimated it would summer before they are dispensing marijuana.
When a reporter asked if all cardholders would be able to grow their own pot in the first few months when dispensaries cannot provide it, Humble responded that would be a question for the Arizona Attorney General's Office. Prop. 203 allows people to grow their own if a dispensary is not located within 25 miles of their home.
The proposition specifies that each county will get at least one medical marijuana dispensary, with a maximum of one dispensary for every 10 pharmacies. Arizona has about 1,250 pharmacies, with 10 in the Prescott tri-city area.
Cardholders' names will not be public, but police will have access to the list of names so they can verify whether people legally have marijuana, Humble said.
Humble said he wants to avoid problems that the other 14 states with medical marijuana laws have faced.
For example, he wants to use ADHS rules to prevent doctor prescription mills from churning out medical marijuana cards for $150 and a 15-minute visit, saying that's what happens in Colorado.
"I want to avoid that kind of abuse," Humble said.
And he wants to make sure doctors are talking with patients about alternatives to marijuana for chronic pain.
"Chronic pain is very difficult to measure," he said, noting that Prop. 203 allows medical marijuana use for that complaint. "This issue of chronic pain in other states really has been the gateway ... to abuse."
Humble also said he wants Arizona to be the first state to track medical marijuana inventory so it doesn't end up getting sold on the streets.
Gogek said tight regulations on defining chronic pain and requiring a close doctor-patient relationship will be important to preventing medical marijuana use from getting out of control.
Polk, who is president of the Statewide Association of County Attorneys and Sheriffs, said she will closely follow the ADHS rulemaking process.
She also plans to start working with the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors on county zoning regulations governing where dispensaries can locate.
The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office is talking with the County Attorney's Office about prosecutorial issues that are likely to arise in relation to law enforcement variables with dispensaries and medical marijuana cardholders, Sheriff's Office spokesperson Dwight D'Evelyn said.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office has no specific plans to issue an opinion on how to enforce the new law, spokesperson Mika Marquart said. "We're sort of just hanging tight waiting" for the final vote tally Nov. 29, she said.
The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board might be offering an interpretation of the new law and new training for it, Polk said.