Now, the state Department of Health Services must come up with formal regulations to determine who can get medical marijuana and who can sell it.
After ballots are canvassed Nov. 29, the state has four months before the law goes into effect.
Teams of workers will try to ensure the rules are in place by April, but it could take until summer for a patient with a medical marijuana card to get the drug from a licensed dispensary, department Director Will Humble said Monday.
Many unanswered questioned remained about the implementation of the measure, including how growers will legally obtain marijuana seeds, what will qualify as chronic pain, and whether dispensaries will be allowed to have physicians on site who make patient recommendations for medical marijuana.
“The truth is we’re not going to have answers to those questions for a few months,” Humble said.
Arizona is the 15th state to approve a medical marijuana law. California was the first in 1996.
Humble said he wants his department to study initiatives in other states and learn from the mistakes. He pointed to Colorado, where he said a patient can get a recommendation for medical marijuana after a 15-minute appointment and $150 check.
“I want to avoid that kind of abuse … Most other states, you hang out a shingle and you’re a dispensary,” he said.
Other preparations will include developing a computer infrastructure that can identify cardholders and monitor how much pot they receive. Humble also wants to track every marijuana seed from the time it’s planted until it reaches a patient’s possession, possibly using a bar code system.
“What we need to do is flesh out the details in the initiative so we’ve got a responsible system at the end of the day, and that’s going to take a lot of work,” Humble said.
Staff time to set up the system could cost as much as $800,000, which Humble hopes eventually will be covered by fees that come from medical marijuana users and sellers.
News of voter approval came Saturday as somewhat of a surprise because the measure was losing by 7,200 votes on Election Day. The gap gradually narrowed until provisional ballots pushed it over the top.
The measure won by just 4,341 votes after more than 1.67 million ballots were counted.
The health department plans to post an initial informal draft of its regulatory rules on Dec. 17 followed by a public comment period. People can weigh in on the draft electronically or in person at three public meetings in February.
The department then will post the final rules March 28 and expects to accept the first applications for medical marijuana cards and dispensaries in early April. That’s when dispensaries can begin the growing process.
“Between now and April is the really heavy lifting,” Humble said in a video addressing the public about the measure.
The measure will allow patients with diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and any other chronic or debilitating disease that meets guidelines to buy 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks or grow plants.
Patients must get a recommendation from their doctor and register with the department. Dispensaries will be required to register with the health department after filing an application and paying a fee. No more than 124 dispensaries would be allowed in the state.
Other Arizona agencies are preparing for the measure as well.
Patricia Sallen, director of special services and ethics at the State Bar of Arizona, said her group is grappling with a rule issued by the Arizona Supreme Court that says a lawyer cannot help a client in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal.
In this case, federal law trumps Arizona’s measure, and marijuana technically is still illegal.
“It really raises issues for licensed professionals that a lot of people wouldn’t have thought about,” she said.
She and the bar’s ethics committee are working to eventually issue an opinion advising lawyers who may get inquiries from dispensaries seeking legal advise.
Arizona voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana law in 1996 and 1998, but wording conflicted with federal law, blocking its enactment. In 2002, voters rejected a sweeping initiative that would have decriminalized possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for any user and required state police to hand out the drug to seriously ill people.