Originally Published: March 28, 2011 9:19 p.m.
Potential medical marijuana users are just a few weeks away from being able to legally grow their own pot in Arizona.
And it's likely that people who receive medical marijuana user cards before October will be able to continue growing their own legal pot for a year.
The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) released its final draft rules Monday that implement the medical marijuana law voters approved this past fall. The agency posted the rules, applications and FAQs on its website Monday at www.azdhs.gov.
ADHS officials plan to start taking applications for medical marijuana user cards on April 14. The agency then has 15 working days to process the applications.
Meanwhile, the state won't start accepting medical marijuana dispensary applications until June 1. ADHS Director Will Humble told The Daily Courier that the dispensaries probably won't start opening until early October.
That leaves medical marijuana users with only two options until October: grow their own pot or appoint a caregiver to do it.
The law allows cardholders and caregivers to grow pot only if a dispensary is not selling pot within 25 miles.
But anyone who gets a card before a dispensary exists within 25 miles of their home probably will be able to continue growing their own pot for a year, until they have to apply for a new annual card, Humble said.
"The status quo is worse," said Andrew Myers, who led the Arizona medical marijuana campaign and now helped start up the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association to represent dispensaries and patients.
"The medical marijuana program is not going to increase demand," he said. "All we're doing is taking patients away from the illegal drug market."
Humble expects ADHS officials will be too busy inspecting new dispensaries to track down cardholders who live within 25 miles of dispensaries that were licensed after users got their cards.
Humble noted that the Legislature and governor cut the ADHS by 47 percent over the last three years.
Once the dispensaries come on line, the ADHS rules set up a system that tries to spread dispensaries throughout the state.
While some homes still will be more than 25 miles from the nearest dispensary, the rules will minimize their numbers, Humble said.
Vocal opponents of the medical marijuana law from the Prescott region would have liked to see the rules force out more legal homegrown pot growers, including Prescott psychiatrist Ed Gogek and MatForce, a consortium of law enforcement and other agencies in the Prescott region.
An initial scan of the 92 pages of final rules indicates that the rules also might incorrectly allow two commercial cultivation facilities per dispensary, one on site and one off site, said Jack Fields, a Yavapai County deputy attorney who works with MatForce.
MatForce reads the law to say that commercial cultivation facilities not attached to dispensaries must have separate dispensary licenses, Fields said.
Worst state ever?
Gogek is altogether unhappy with the final rules. The draft rules included restrictions on the number of medical marijuana recommendations one doctor could make, and required doctors to see patients several times before recommending medical marijuana cards for them. Those draft rules are removed from the final rules.
"Arizona now has the worst medical marijuana law in the nation," Gogek concluded.
"He's just being dogmatic for the sake of being dogmatic," Myers said of Gogek.
"Overall, I think it's a good package," Myers said of the final rules. "Patients are treated very fairly."
While the rules limit the number of dispensaries, they don't limit the number of cardholders and that is what's important, Gogek said.
He predicts that the state will experience an extra 20 to 40 highway deaths every year and an additional 2,000 to 3,000 high school dropouts each year, based on studies he links to his website at www.edgogek.com.
Gogek noted that Arizona is the only state with a medical marijuana law that includes anti-discrimination language, so landlords can't evict pot smokers and employers can't automatically fire them.
That's a good thing, Myers said, pointing to a Michigan medical marijuana user with brain cancer who lost his job at Walmart.
Zoning regs next
Yavapai County Development Services Director Steve Mauk, also a MatForce member, said the county will move ahead on its own medical marijuana zoning discussion now that the state rules are final.
He plans to ask the county supervisors on April 18 whether they want to enact stricter zoning requirements than the state.
The state is requiring dispensaries to be at least 500 feet from schools, but that's about the only state zoning rule, Mauk said.
In Yavapai County outside of municipalities, dispensaries must be located in commercial or retail sales districts, while commercial cultivation and food infusion operations must be in industrial districts, Mauk said.