Originally Published: February 16, 2018 6:01 a.m.
PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to make felons of doctors who don’t follow all the rules when recommending that a patient be allowed to use marijuana.
The 6-3 vote Thursday by the House Health Committee for HB 2067 would impose prison terms of up to a year for medical professionals who fail to conduct a full medical exam before issuing the state certification that is required for patients in Arizona to buy and use the drug legally. That same penalty would also apply to doctors who do not review at least a year of the patient’s medical records prior to allowing the patient to use marijuana.
The committee’s vote on HB 2067 followed complaints by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk about “pot docs” — doctors who, she said, are in the business of making as much money as possible by providing the certification patients in Arizona need to legally purchase and use marijuana.
Polk has made no secret of her opposition to medical marijuana, which Arizona voters approved in 2010. She has said she wants to make certain that doctors follow the certification process that is already required by state regulations. That process, she told lawmakers, is not always followed. As proof, she cited billboards that advertise that people can get a medical marijuana card in Arizona without having any medical records.
Thursday’s vote is the second victory for Polk in her fight against medical marijuana.
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said Polk’s lobbying forced him to abandon his effort to slash the $150 annual fee the state Department of Health Services charges to patients who use medical marijuana.
Borrelli had shepherded his bill, SB 1420, through the Senate Government Committee late last month, after pointing out that the amount of money being collected is far greater than the cost of running the program. He pointed out that there is more than $40 million sitting in an account that, by law, cannot be used for other purposes.
But that was before Polk argued to lawmakers that lower fees would make it easier for young people to get medical-marijuana cards.
Borrelli told Capitol Media Services that Polk’s opposition threatened to quash the entire bill. By dumping the fee reduction, Borrelli preserves the other provision that he thinks are crucial in that bill — having the state test what’s being sold as medical marijuana, both to verify the content of THC, the psychoactive element, as well as to determine whether there are residual pesticides or chemicals.
The 2010, voter-approved law allows those with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s recommendation — it’s technically not a prescription — to get a card from the state, allowing those patients to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The most recent reports show more than 156,000 Arizonans have been issued these cards.
What’s behind Polk’s efforts on both bills is her belief that it’s too easy for people — especially young adults — to get the cards.
“I hear a lot from the parents who are very frustrated because their son has turned 18,” she told lawmakers. “They visited what we call the ‘pot docs,’ and 30 minutes later they walk out with that recommendation.”
But it isn’t just teens.
“This is a de facto recreational marijuana program,” Polk says of the 2010 law.
She cited figures from the state that show fewer than 3 percent of medical marijuana patients got the certification for cancer and fewer than 2 percent got it for post-traumatic stress disorder. Conversely, Polk said, about 85 percent of certifications fall into a catch-all category, chronic pain, with the bulk of patients being men between 18 and 30.
Polk’s suggestion that many patients have no legitimate need to use medical marijuana drew a sharp reaction from Rep. Pamela Powers Hanley, D-Tucson. She cited information that shows that the largest number of users of opioids for pain were men in that same age group.
“So I don’t think you should discount the idea that because a man is young that he does not have chronic pain,” she said.
Powers Hanley said there are studies that show marijuana is a viable alternative to opioids, as well as being a less expensive alternative to other pain medications.
“I see this bill as an attempt to overregulate a medicinal plant that has been used for centuries safely,” Powers Hanley said.
Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, said that while she does not favor recreational use of marijuana, she also does not favor further restrictions of the medical use of marijuana.
“But I do think there is a serious medical need for it,” she said, adding that she does not want to “criminalize physicians who are doing their job.”
Polk acknowledged that existing law already allows the medical boards that license and regulate doctors to discipline those who do not follow state laws and rules. Those boards can also revoke a doctor’s ability to practice. But Polk said that regulation is not see that as a substitute for criminal penalties.
HB 2067 now needs approval of the full House.