Originally Published: July 16, 2011 9:55 p.m.
WASHINGTON (AP) - More than 7,500 Arizonans had been approved for personal medical marijuana licenses as of Wednesday, despite a well-publicized court battle that has delayed implementation of other parts of the law.
The court fight between the state and federal governments has temporarily halted approval of marijuana dispensaries but not personal licenses, which had been granted to 7,570 individuals and 270 caregivers by this week. The Arizona Department of Health Services could not say how many of the caregivers, if any, also had patient licenses.
Only seven patient applications have been denied so far and 93 percent of applications for caregivers - who help patients administer their medical marijuana - have been approved.
Three-quarters of approved patients are men and about 60 percent are older than 41. But the department said two minors have also had applications approved. The vast majority of applicants cited chronic pain as the reason they needed medical marijuana.
Close to 80 percent of applicants have asked for approval to grow their own marijuana, which is allowed under Arizona law for anyone who does not live within 25 miles of a dispensary. Individuals approved to grow their own can legally maintain up to 12 plants in their homes and caregivers can grow for up to five patients at a time.
Those numbers have even some medical marijuana activists concerned about quality control and safety issues surrounding home-grown marijuana in residential areas.
"It's hard to ensure quality and standards on something that should be regulated," said Vincent Palazzotto, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Assistance Program of America. "It is about the safety of the patient at the end of this."
Palazzotto said he would not be comfortable with neighbors growing marijuana in his apartment building in the absence of dispensaries, since the lack of regulation would mean increased risks like fire or theft, for the value of the medicine or the equipment used to grow it.
State health officials declined to comment on the approvals, referring all questions to Department Director Will Humble's blog on the subject.
The state in May stopped processing dispensary applications after concerns were raised that state employees might face federal prosecution for assisting in marijuana distribution. The state sued the Justice Department on May 27 seeking clarification of the federal government's position before proceeding on the dispensary applications.
The Justice Department issued a memo in June that was supposed to give guidance to states with medical marijuana laws, but Gov. Jan Brewer said it offered "little more than continued confusion and doublespeak."
"If this memo was an attempt at clarity, it failed," she said.
The delay in dispensary decisions has sparked other lawsuits by groups trying to force the state to begin processing applications. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion last week asking a federal judge to dismiss the suit brought by Brewer and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne.
"Arizona is in a very gray area because the law passed at an unfortuitous time when the federal government is unclear," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
If no dispensaries are approved in the state, every medical marijuana patient would theoretically be able to grow their own. Those who did not get that permission initially could pay $10 and apply to amend their license.
If a home-grown market sprouts up in Arizona, Dhar Mann is ready to cultivate it. Mann, founder of the weGrow Store, said his business has heard from an "overwhelming amount of patients" in need of information and help building safe grow-rooms. His company opened its Phoenix store June 1, just days after the medical marijuana dispensary program was put on hold.
"A lack of support and training for medical marijuana growers leads to unsafe cultivation practices, causing electrical fires, floods, unsafe product and many other dangerous problems," Mann said in an email.
Officials in Peoria are prepared for dispensaries there should the state ever approve a license. The town has given zoning approval for the location of two dispensaries, if they can win state operating licenses.
So far, there has been no public outcry, said Chris Jacques, the Peoria city planning manager, adding that citizens were "a no-show" at the planning and zoning commission meeting on the issue.
"They are pretty well away from children and residential communities," Jacques said of the approved locations. He said the city put them in commercial districts for easier policing, and that only four or five sites in the city qualified for zoning.
Mann, meanwhile, is ready for any outcome of the "ongoing tug-of-war between state and federal government."
"If there are lower barriers to entry for cultivating medical marijuana it would open up a larger customer base, which would be great for business," said Mann. "Until that happens, two steps forward, one step backward."
Web links: -Arizona Medical Marijuana Act: http://www.azleg.gov/FormatDocument.asp?inDoc/ars/36/02801.htm&Title36&DocTypeARS - Arizona Director of Health Services blog entries on medical marijuana: http://directorsblog.health.azdhs.gov/?tagarizona-medical-marijuana-act - Justice Department guidance memo: http://www.azdhs.gov/medicalmarijuana/documents/resources/guidance-regarding-medical-marijuana.pdf - Arizona Health Department Medical Marijuana Rules: http://www.azsos.gov/public-services/Register/2011/18/exempt.pdf - Medical marijuana patient's license application: http://www.azdhs.gov/medicalmarijuana/patients/ - Medical marijuana caregiver's license application: http://www.azdhs.gov/medicalmarijuana/caregivers/