Senate bill would give rural areas more medical marijuana dispensaries

Senate bill would give rural areas more medical marijuana dispensaries

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

State lawmakers are taking steps to ensure that rural residents have easy access to medical marijuana without having to grow their own.

SB 1286 would require the Department of Health Services to give top priority to applications to locate dispensaries in areas of the state where there had been one before but now it’s gone. Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said this will address what has become a shortage of places for patients in some areas of the state to get the drugs they need.

The unanimous approval of the House Committee on Regulatory Affairs on Monday sends the measure to the full House.

At the heart of the issue is how the state decides who gets a dispensary license.

The 2010 law that legalized marijuana for medical use required the health department to set up a network of nonprofit dispensaries, with one dispensary for every 10 pharmacies.

As that worked out, the number allowed was pretty much equivalent to the 126 “community health assessment areas.” So state health officials decided to issue one for each of those area.

That pretty much assured a broad array of outlets, with the exception of some Native American reservations which did not approve the sale of the drug.

But those rules allowed those who were awarded dispensary licenses to pack up and go elsewhere after they had been in operation for at least three years. And Gowan said some of those that sought those rural licenses – the places with the least competition – probably had little interest in staying where they were.

“They all wanted to get into where the population is,” he said, mostly in Maricopa County. Complicating matters is that the existing rules say when the health department issues new licenses, the factors they have to consider include where there are the most patients. The result, said Gowan, is that about 60 percent of the licenses are within the state’s largest county.

The South Phoenix CHAA alone has four dispensaries, with an identical amount in the Peoria-Sun City area and in North Scottsdale.

Conversely, the latest data from the health department shows several areas with just a single dispensary like Yuma, Sierra Vista, with the same situation in Graham and Greenlee counties.

And there are several of these CHAAs in the state where there are no dispensaries at all, including Douglas, Holbrook, Eloy and the Page/Fredonia area. There also are none at all in Santa Cruz, La Paz and Apache counties.

Residents of these areas are not without some options.

Michael Weisser, state director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, pointed out the voter-approved law allows those who are not within 25 miles of a dispensary are entitled to grow up to 12 marijuana plants “in an enclosed, locked facility.”

But he said that’s of little comfort to those who are sickest who may have little interest in cultivation and, more to the point, need alternate forms of the drug, like inhaling through a “vape” pen which requires a liquid that only a dispensary can product. And he said the sickest of patients need concentrations of the drug that would not be found in the flowers of plants that people grow at home.

Weisser also told lawmakers they should not be encouraging people to grow their own.

“This has led to diversion,” he said, where some of what’s grown may not remain with the patient who has those grow rights. “It has led to people participating on the underground economy, which has been a concern for rural law enforcement.”

The legislation would set up a three-tiered system for new licenses.

Top priority would go to those willing to set up in an area that at one time had a dispensary that moved away and is at least 25 miles from another dispensary. After that, the licenses would go to any area at least 25 miles from an existing dispensary.

Only if no one has applied to go into that area would the health department be able to issue licenses according to its existing rules.

And there’s something else.

It also would prohibit a repeat of the situation that led to this problem, with would-be dispensary operators bidding to serve rural areas now only to then be able to move to a more financially lucrative location.

Instead, anyone who would get a first- or second-tier priority license under the new system would have to remain within the same city or town. And if the licenses was for an unincorporated area, it could be transferred only within the same county, but not within 25 miles of another dispensary.

“It gets these licenses out to where they need to go … and make sure that citizens outside of Maricopa can be represented again,” Gowan said.