Pubdate: Mon, 11 Oct 2010
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2010 The Arizona Republic
Author: Michelle Ye Hee Lee
Cited: Arizona Department of Health Services
Cited: Proposition 203
Bookmark: (Proposition 203)


State Health Department Fears Cost, Regulatory Challenges Over Proposition 203

If voters approve the medical-marijuana ballot proposition Nov. 2, 
health officials say the cash-strapped state will have to spend up to 
$1 million and work under a tight deadline to implement the law.

The Arizona Department of Health Services, which opposes the 
proposition but would be charged with regulating medical marijuana, 
says Proposition 203 would create huge obstacles for the department. 
It already is coping with budget and staff cuts and would need to 
work fast to set up a monitoring system to prevent marijuana from 
being handed out without department oversight.

The department would have 120 days to set up procedures for 
dispensing marijuana and to develop an electronic database to track 
records. If the department missed its deadline, every 
medical-marijuana application with a doctor's recommendation would 
have to be accepted.

But advocates of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act say they would 
provide resources to help the department establish a system, and the 
department could make up its initial costs through fees and donations 
within the first year.

If voters approve the measure, licensed physicians could recommend 
medical marijuana to patients with debilitating medical conditions, 
including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and Alzheimer's disease.

Patients would register for identification cards with the health 
department. They could receive up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every 
two weeks from dispensaries or cultivate up to 12 marijuana plants if 
they live 25 miles or farther from a dispensary.

There would be 124 dispensaries operated by non-profits to start, 
proportionate to the number of pharmacies in the state.

Department's Role

The proposition is lengthy and contains specific guidelines about the 
health department's role. But it also gives the department, which 
opposes the proposition on medical and health-safety grounds, room to 
create some of its own administrative procedures.

The health department would establish standards for dispensaries such 
as application requirements and application and re-newal costs. The 
department would determine safety standards for dispensaries, such as 
the security systems they would have to install, the rules under 
which the department could revoke licenses and how to inspect dispensaries.

For patients, the department would figure out requirements for 
medical-marijuana card applications, how to verify designated 
caregivers who could buy the marijuana on behalf of a patient and how 
to develop a system for creating new photo IDs.

The department must set up a password-protected computer system to 
store information for patients, dispensaries and law enforcement.

There is some dispute over how much legal authority the department 
would have to define and regulate the law.

Andrew Myers, campaign manager for Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy 
Project, said pro-Prop. 203 professionals are drafting 
recommendations to help the department tightly regulate the law.

But Carolyn Short, chairwoman of opposition campaign Keep Arizona 
Drug Free, questions whether the department indeed would have the 
authority to regulate the voter-approved law and worries that if the 
department tried to regulate the law, the state could face lawsuits.

According to the Arizona Legislative Council, a research wing of the 
Legislature, the health department has the standard authority that 
rulemaking bodies do when adopting laws: As long as the department 
does not contradict the provisions spelled out in the ballot 
proposal, it could fill in any gaps in the measure.

Mike Braun, the council's executive director, said the department 
would hold a public-comment period to gauge how much regulation the 
public would accept.

Regardless, Will Humble, the health department's director, said he 
wants to create a tightly regulated system. He said he wants to "skin 
a little bit close to the edge to get enough checks and balances but 
not enough so that you get a lawsuit."

Lack of Time, Resources

The department has four months from the day the law goes into effect 
to complete all its tasks. If the tasks are not finished, the 
department would have to accept all medical-marijuana applications as 
valid marijuana cards, as long as the patient has a doctor's written 

Health-department officials say the 120-day deadline, which includes 
weekends and holidays, isn't enough time. The department's 
general-fund budget has decreased nearly 50 percent since fiscal 2008 
and the number of staff numbers has dropped from 2,500 to 1,800, 
spokeswoman Laura Oxley said.

"The finish line comes so quick," Humble said. "I wouldn't be so 
nervous if I had a million dollars and a year to get ready."

Three years ago, the department implemented the Smoke-Free Arizona 
Act, which prohibited smoking in enclosed public spaces. But the 
department had six months to figure out how to enforce that law, 
which was far less complex than Prop. 203, Humble said.

There is no extra money allocated in the department's budget, Oxley said.

To set up the electronic data and verification system, the department 
could either use staff or outsource the project. But using current IT 
staff would delay other projects, such as creating an electronic 
licensing system for assisted-living centers, Humble said. And if the 
department outsources the job, an outside company could have partial 
ownership of the system or charge maintenance fees, he said.

To speed up the process, the department's staff is researching other 
states' medical-marijuana rules to see what would work in Arizona.

Generating Money

The medical-marijuana program would be revenue-neutral, and the 
dispensaries would be non-profits.

The health department would manage a fund for fees charged to 
dispensaries and patients and for donations. The state could not use 
this money for its general fund.

The initiative does not address whether the department actively could 
raise funds. Humble said the program could eventually make up the 
initial costs.

The Arizona Legislative Council estimated that there would be 66,000 
medical marijuana cardholders by 2013.

In March, the state Senate passed a bill to tax medical marijuana, 
but it did not make it out of the Legislature. Lawmakers who opposed 
the tax said that they didn't want to give the impression they 
support the initiative or give proponents an extra argument to garner support.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake