Almost five months after voters passed Proposition 203, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, the Health Department has released the final version of the rules that will guide how the system will actually go into effect.
The final rules, released Monday, give shape to several of the different aspects of the program, including how patients will be authorized by the state to use marijuana, how oversight of physicians giving recommendations will work and how people will go about applying to own and operate dispensaries and cultivation sites.
According to the final rules, initial qualified patients will be allowed to possess and use marijuana by late April, and Department of Health Services Director Will Humble said he expects there will be up to 90 marijuana dispensary and cultivation sites up and running by late 2011.
Once the system is fully in place, qualified patients will be allowed to buy up to 2.5 ounces every two weeks from dispensaries. If patients live more than 25 miles from an operational dispensary, they’ll be able to grow up to 12 pot plants at home.
Humble also reiterated during a press conference Monday that his main goal has been to keep recreational pot smokers out of the system, while making sure truly ill people can acquire and use marijuana.
The agency’s final rules come after considering more than 3,000 comments on two draft proposals.
Humble acknowledged the value of the public comments, saying that the process “set the stage for having a medical marijuana program here in Arizona, as opposed to a recreational marijuana program, as is the case in many other states.”
The strongest provisions aimed at keeping recreational users out of Arizona medical marijuana system center on the oversight of the physicians who recommend pot to their patients.
Doctors must attest for each patient that they will assume some responsibility for their routine care and management. They must also attest to having seen a year’s worth of medical records and given a physical exam to patients. If the Department of Health Services sees a physician giving numerous recommendations for dubious medical conditions, it will recommend a review by the state medical board, which can result in the physician losing their license to practice.
Humble admitted that the system is not bullet proof, however.
“We hope to be able to set forward in these rules a way to identify those physicians and make referrals to boards, when we identify what we see as unprofessional conduct. We’re going to do that,” Humble said. “But, ultimately, we’re not in control of our destiny completely. It really depends on action by those boards.”
The agency also released the forms that will need to be completed by doctors and patients to receive authorization to become a qualified patient. Patients and physicians can begin completing those forms immediately, and hopeful patients can begin submitting them to the Health Department on April 14.
After that, the agency will have ten days to either approve or deny the patient. If approved, they’ll be added to a state database of medical marijuana patients and will be able to possess and use marijuana. Patients will need to pay the Health Department $150, and will need to renew their status yearly.
Dispensaries will not be able to open shop until later this year, however, as the process for getting one of the dispensary licenses will take several more months.
The one-sentence provision in Prop. 203 that allows qualified patients to grow their own marijuana if they live more than 25 miles from an operational dispensary means that, until the dispensaries open, all initial patients who request authorization to grow their own marijuana will be able to.
Due to a cap on the number of dispensaries allowed by Prop. 203 – a total of 125 for the entire state – and the high level of interest in owning them, the rules about who will get to own and operate them has been one of the most contentious parts of the previous drafts.
The department settled on what Humble calls a hybrid, two-step process.
The Health Department had already decided to use a map that divides the state into geographical divisions, called Community Health Analysis Areas (CHAAs), and allow one dispensary for each. As applications come into the department beginning June 1, they will be entered into consideration for each CHAA. If more than one application is entered for a CHAA, a more stringent set of standards will be applied to each application, weeding out the less qualified applicants. The applications that pass the more rigorous evaluation will then be entered into a random selection process.
The more stringent pre-evaluation for applications in high-interest CHAAs will include a check on whether an applicant has unpaid taxes, is in default on a student loan, has failed to pay child support or has gone through a bankruptcy.
Hopeful dispensary owners will only be able to submit one application per CHAA and five total.
Ryan Hurley, an attorney with Rose Law Group who is advising several hopeful dispensary owners, said he and his clients are pleased with the final regulations.
“The most significant part of the final rules is the pre-evaluation,” he said. “It puts a quality review into the front end of the process.”
Hurley said he and his clients had been concerned that, without such an analysis of applications, anyone who could scrape together the $5,000 application fee would be just as likely to receive a dispensary license, even if they were far less qualified than another applicant.
Once an application is selected for a CHAA, the license holder will be given several more months to secure a location, build the dispensary and cultivation site, then get a final inspection and approval by the Health Department.
Another change included in the latest rules states that, if after three years of operating a dispensary, a dispensary owner wants to move locations, he can request to do so. This is another encouragement, Humble said, for applicants to consider the less populous, rural parts of the state, which he hopes will lead to a wide dispersion of dispensaries.
Andrew Myers, who ran the campaign for Prop. 203 and who now operates the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, applauded the final regulations over the dispensary application process. In particular, Myers praised the rule that allows dispensary owners to move their location after three years. That, he said, will allow the market to more adequately direct the dispersion of dispensaries.
“If the reality of the situation necessitates dispensaries moving locations, that will now be possible,” Myers said. “That’s a big improvement.”
Hurley said the next few months will be hectic with application preparation, followed by the random selection and facility build-out. He’s told his clients to prepare to be operating by early 2012, if they get selected for a dispensary license.
“After that, who knows,” he said. “A lot of how the program works out is pinned on how the feds treat this.”
Hurley pointed out that, although medical marijuana is now legal by state law, it’s still against federal law. And despite a more relaxed attitude toward medical marijuana states by the current federal administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided cultivation sites in Montana just last week.
“There’s really no way to know what the feds will do,” Hurley said. “It’s completely up to their discretion.”
Other Health Department documents released today:
For more information and to download the patient certification forms, visit //www.azdhs.gov/prop203.