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7:17 AM Tue, Sept. 18th

County officials ponder pot law repercussions

JEROME - Local governments have numerous angles to tackle when it comes to Arizona's new medical marijuana law - they not only have to deal with it as a law and zoning enforcer, but also as an employer of potential users.

Yavapai County supervisors pondered some of those issues Monday during a daylong retreat at the Jerome Town Hall, where participants munched on brownies and other sweets before lunch. County administrator aide Brenda Peterson usually provides brownies for such meetings but sprinkled them with parsley to pun the medical marijuana discussion.

Before Arizona voters narrowly approved the medical marijuana law in November, employers and law officers could punish anyone for having marijuana metabolites in their systems while working or driving vehicles, even though metabolites can stay in body systems for a month, well past actual impairment.

Now employers and law enforcement officers will have to show that medical marijuana cardholders actually are impaired at work or behind the wheel.

However, there are some exceptions, Deputy County Attorney Jack Fields told the supervisors Monday.

People with Commercial Driver's Licenses (CDLs) and law enforcement officers still will be subject to federal law and therefore can't have marijuana metabolites in their systems, Fields said. The county conducts random drug tests on its CDL holders, but not other employees.

For other cardholders, the Yavapai County MATForce is hoping the Legislature will establish a minimum level of THC in the bloodstream to define impairment statewide. THC stays in the bloodstream for only about four hours, Fields said. MATForce formed to combat drug abuse and includes law enforcement agencies.

County prosecutors say 2 nanograms per milliliter would be a good THC impairment level - about the minimum that can be measured, Fields related. But scientific studies about impairment levels are lacking, he added.

Many questions related to the state's new medical marijuana law remain unanswered, Fields said. County officials and others are hoping that the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) will answer many of these questions in the regulations it is drafting.

Other questions might end up in court, Fields said.

For example, can employers require medical marijuana cardholders to notify employers they hold such cards? That could be a violation of the federal HIPAA law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and is likely to need a court decision, Fields said.

MATForce provided a 24-page response to the first draft of ADHS regulations, after conducting two brainstorming sessions with a total of about 100 people. The next draft should be out Monday.

The county should wait for final ADHS regulations before working on zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries and growing facilities, Yavapai County Development Services Director Steve Mauk told supervisors.

"We will schedule it - no pun intended - for a joint session" of the Board of Supervisors and Planning and Zoning Commission, Mauk said.

Mauk came up with the idea to encourage ADHS regulations to try to license dispensaries every 25 miles so individuals won't be able to grow pot in their homes. The new law allows home growing if dispensaries are more than 25 miles away.

The ADHS is supposed to finalize its regulations by April 1.

In the meantime, law enforcement officials are especially unclear about what is legal.

Fields said people charged with marijuana DUI might try to argue in court that they have a medical need for the drug, and provide a doctor's note that agrees.

They also might argue it's legal to grow pot since dispensaries aren't yet available.