Bill aims to revive Arizona’s struggling medical marijuana program

Getting a medical marijuana card in Arizona could soon be both easier and cheaper for patients — and free for veterans — if a new bill working its way through the state legislature passes and is signed by Governor Katie Hobbs.

Senate Bill 1466 recently passed the House Human Services Committee and will soon move back to the full House.

“As a state, we embraced cannabis as a medical-use first, and it’s our obligation as an industry to make sure that we provide that ongoing,” said Ann Torrez, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association.

If passed, the bill would lower the initial registration and two-year renewal price of a medical marijuana card — or “green card” as they’re affectionately known in the industry — down from $150 to $50 for the typical patients and make the process free for veterans.

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Other provisions within the bill would also add, subtract and help better align the program with the state’s recreational program.

It would add autism spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of medical conditions a physician can recommend a green card for, and the ability of physicians to issue medical cannabis recommendations through telehealth appointments.

The potential addition of autism and PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions is owed to a shift in public perception about cannabis and an increasing acknowledgment by the medical community that marijuana has many potential medical uses and benefits, said Clark Wu, a lobbyist and senior attorney with the Phoenix-based law firm Bianchi & Brandt.

“It was viewed as really just a mechanism for treating serious pain and conditions involving serious pain,” Wu said. “While the cannabis community viewed it as viable, it wasn’t really as broadly adopted until now.”

As for recommendations by telehealth, the move would bring into law a pandemic-era emergency change that was allowed during COVID, according to Torrez.

“We would like to see that codified so that patients who need that additional assistance in order to have access to medicine can get it,” she said.

The bill would eliminate the Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council, a committee that recommends testing rules to AZDHS. The MMTAC would be replaced by quarterly meetings held by AZDHS where the public could comment on laboratory testing requirements.

However, Wu said he believes that particular provision in the bill seems to still be in flux.

“I think this is a concept that’s still being fleshed out,” he said. “The current version of bill… might not be the final version.”

The bill would also bring into line certain packaging and advertising rules. For example, recreational products are bared from using certain imagery like fruits and animals on packaging. That’s not necessarily so for medical products.

The changes are necessary for the program to remain viable, proponents of the measure say.

Arizona’s medical marijuana program has seen declining membership ever since Prop. 207 legalized recreational cannabis in the state.

That was to be expected, according to Wu.

Between increased access due to more dispensaries and more products, and the willingness of some cannabis companies to cater to the larger and slightly more lucrative recreational market, Arizona’s medical program has gone the way of most states’ that later adopt a recreational program.

“You have increased access for essentially anybody who’s over the age of 21 and you don’t have to go out and pay for a potentially costly card,” he said.

While SB-1466 would bring down the cost of a green card, patients would still be looking at at paying for a visit to a doctor to recommend the card.

That can range anywhere from $75 to $150, according to Dustin Klein, former owner of Sun Valley Certification Clinic, one of the largest medical marijuana certification clinics in the state.

“In general, you’re looking at about $275 to be covered for two years in Arizona,” Klein said. “And you gotta repeat the process every two years, all the paying the state, seeing the doctor, completing the documentation.”

Once a thriving program with more than 350,000 patients enrolled, the latest state report from the Arizona Department of Health Services in February this year indicates there are just over 125,000 patients enrolled.

That slide can be stopped, and perhaps reversed with passage of the bill, Torrez said.

“We’ve got folks that are celebrating their 10-year anniversaries in the space and patients have come to count on it,” she said. “And for us to let that go away, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest.”

Edward Celaya is a cannabis writer and host of the “Here Weed Go!” podcast. He graduated from Pima Community College and the University of Arizona and has been with the Arizona Daily Star since May 2019.

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