Proposed pot rules generate comments

PHOENIX - The first draft of the rules governing the use of medical marijuana in Arizona has been met with a flood of comments. The Arizona Department of Health Services released the latest draft of the rules governing medical marijuana in December. The department received more than 1,300 comments through its online system.

It seems as if nearly everyone in the state had something to say about the first draft of the rules. The department received comments from various city, town and county governments, various police departments, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Pharmacy Alliance, a doctor from Prescott, the Yavapai County Substance Abuse Coalition, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, several law firms representing different organizations and individuals, the Naturopathic Medicine Association, the Gun Owners of Arizona, Arizonans Concerned About Smoking, the Arizona Association of Dispensary Professionals, the Institute for Holistic Health and Healing, a man who runs a business that encourages sustainable farming practices, and the Coalition for a Drug-Free California, as well as residents. The names of residents were removed from all comments.

The comments can be found on the ADHS' website at http://www.azdhs.gov/prop203/.

Most of the comments centered around 10 major issues residents had with the rules.

The issue that received the most comments was the rule that patients must have a one-year relationship with their doctor and have had four visits before being eligible to apply for a medical marijuana card.

Several people commented that the rule was too restrictive, especially when it came to people who were suffering from a terminal illness and were unlikely to survive another year.

Some argued that a year's worth of medical records or a diagnosis of a qualifying illness should be enough to be able to apply for a card. Many commenters said their current doctor was unlikely to approve medical marijuana for them and they didn't want to switch primary care doctors, wait a year and go through four exams in order to get a card.

More than one person commented that they are receiving healthcare from the Veterans Administration and would not be able to get approval for medical marijuana from their doctor and did not have the funds to go to another doctor.

Other commenters challenged ADHS's authority to write such a requirement into the rules. They said the department had no authority to regulate the doctor/client relationship and it had no authority to dictate who should and should not receive medicine.

"I voted for Proposition 203 (the initiative that approved medical marijuana in November.) The general tone of the draft regulations, as exemplified in the provisions listed below, make it clear that the Health Department is attempting to use the regulatory process to subvert the will of the voters ... I will certainly support any lawsuit that ensues that your agency's regulations exceed your authority under the law," one commenter wrote on ADHS's website.

Others liked the restriction or asked the department to make it even more stringent to keep the drug out of the hands of children.

Another request brought up by a commenter was to include more illnesses in the list of those acceptable for treatment by medical marijuana. Many asked the department to include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, social anxiety disorder and others.

The current qualifying conditions include: cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn's disease or a chronic disease that causes any of the following: wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, or severe or persistent muscle spasms. There is a process to have additional illnesses added to the list.

Other people asked the department to better define some of the current illnesses on the list to make sure that people who did not need the drug did not gain access to it by claiming they had a debilitating illness or pain when they really didn't.

Another big issue among those who left comments was the cost of the patient and caregiver cards and the cost to open a dispensary. A large number of people stated they did not have the funds to pay the $150 fee for a patient card or the $200 fee for a caregiver's card.

Others liked the fee structure, saying it would discourage people who did not have a qualifying illness from easily getting approval for a card.

A lot of the comments involved the registration, construction and operation of dispensaries. Many people objected to the $5,000 cost to register a dispensary with the department and the requirements to apply and operate a dispensary.

"The intent of ADHS to keep the dispensaries out of the hands of criminals is honorable. However, in their current form, only the wealthy, and others with criminal backing, will be able to open one," said one commenter.

"I think the requirements to become a dispensary are very good. Particularly the non-refundable $5,000 application fee and the requirement that the principles be Arizona citizens for at least two years. I believe that will filter out a lot of glorified smoke shops and investors from other states," said one person.

The rule limiting the operation of dispensaries to Arizona citizens who have lived in the state for at least two years was well received by many people who commented. A small number even asked the department to increase the residency requirement to five or more years in order to discourage out-of-state operations from moving people in to meet residency requirements.

People also said it would be hard to meet the requirement to have a certificate of occupancy for a building to operate a dispensary in hand before applying for a dispensary license.

Others stated that the requirement that a dispensary grow at least 70 percent of its stock was unreasonable and would lead to an increase in cost for the product and a shortage in supply.

People were mixed on the idea requiring a dispensary to have a medical director on call. Some liked the idea and said it would deter people who might abuse the drug and provide information for patients. Others said the requirement would drive up the cost of the drug because the dispensary would have to cover the cost of hiring a doctor. They recommended allowing dispensaries to use nurses or nurse practioners to fill the position. Others stated that it was one more unnecessary hoop for a patient to jump through and the requirement should be eliminated.