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Arizona previews rules for medical marijuana

Arizona health officials said medical marijuana programs in other states have been abused by hoards of recreational pot smokers, and to keep that from happening here they plan to hold doctors accountable for each recommendation they write and raise the bar for patients to qualify.

The Department of Health Services on Friday released a 47-page draft of the rules that will dictate how the state’s medical marijuana program will work when it kicks off in April. A revised set of rules will be released in January, after a public comment period.

The draft included guidelines that Health Department Director Will Humble said would drastically reduce the number of medical marijuana cards that will be given to people who suffer from a qualifying medical condition.

He said he expects the department to issue between 10,000 and 20,000 medical marijuana cards, far less than his original estimate of 100,000, which was based on the number of registered medical marijuana patients in Colorado.

“What other states have done is neglect to hold physicians accountable for their recommendations,” Humble said. “We expect to have far fewer recreational users in the end. Some of these other states, honestly, have more recreational users than qualified patients, far more.”

The Health Department is trying to prevent fraud by requiring qualifying medical marijuana patients to visit their doctor at least four times for diagnosis or treatment of the debilitating condition during a period of at least one year.

Andrew Myers, co-chairman of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, lauded the health department for taking a cautious approach, but he said overly broad restrictions may keep legitimately ill people from participating in the program.

“In our view, the doctor-patient relationship outlined here is too restrictive,” Myers said. “The situation we don’t want to find ourselves in is one in which terminal cancer patients who need chemotherapy are being restricted from having access to medical marijuana.”

While the draft rules answered some questions, such how pot brownies have to be prepared, the document left myriad questions unanswered. Still hazy, for instance, is the criteria the Health Department will use when choosing which applicants will be granted dispensary licenses. The state Constitution allows a maximum of 124 dispensaries, though it also allows individual “caregivers” to grow marijuana for registered patients.

Humble said his agency has been so focused on drafting the safeguards for the system that they have not yet decided whether applications would be distributed via a lottery, a third-party evaluation or on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Despite widespread confusion regarding the business side of the program, one thing was totally clear: Arizona’s top health care officials think the medical marijuana programs in California and Colorado are serving far too many healthy people.

Humble said California’s program is such a mess that “there wasn’t much that we could learn from them.”

He said Colorado’s system came undone after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would avoid prosecuting medical marijuana patients and distributors as long as they were operating in accordance with state laws.

“When the risk came out of the system, in terms of the federal prosecution piece, it really took off,” Humble said. “The number of patients went up dramatically.”

Again, the Health Department has a plan to pre-empt what it considers medical-marijuana fraud. According to the draft rules, a licensed medical doctor would serve as a compliance officer at each of the dispensaries, making sure to stop unregistered, healthy people from buying weed. The doctor would have to be on-site or on-call during all hours of operation and could serve in that capacity for as many as three dispensaries.

Humble was pretty confident that Arizona will be able to avoid the problems that have allowed recreational users to infiltrate programs in California and Colorado.

“We can actually make this a medical marijuana program, not a recreational marijuana program, as is the case in some of these other states,” Humble said. “We discovered there were ways we could be far more responsible than other states in ensuring these are true, qualified patients with debilitating medical conditions who qualify.”

Myers, who helped author the medical marijuana law, said he thinks Humble is underestimating the number of legitimate medical marijuana patients in the state. He said the Joint Legislative Budget Council’s estimate that 67,000 patients would register is more accurate.

As for edible marijuana products, Humble said they will have to be made in accordance with all state food regulations, including preparation in commercially licensed kitchens. After all, a brownies is still a brownie, whether its got marijuana in it or not, Humble said.

The Health Department may also require dispensaries to keep track of the amount of marijuana in any edible product, so it could be documented and calculated into the allowable amount for a patient, which is 2.5 ounces every two weeks.

“If you buy a whole pan of brownies, and that’s got an ounce in it – I’m just making these numbers up, I have no idea – then if you bought that whole flat, that would be essentially half of your quota for the two-weeks.”

Humble said the Health Department would come forward with the method for considering dispensary applications in April.

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