Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Act has been in full swing with open, active state-licensed dispensaries for more than a year now, and by most accounts the program is flourishing.
Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) has done an excellent job enacting our medical marijuana program and making sure state-licensed dispensaries can provide safe, legal access to the medicine patients need. DHS has managed this in the face of persistent opposition from politicians, regulatory bodies and law enforcement since voters passed the AMMA in November 2010.
Despite this success, patients still face many obstacles to safe medication. The entire community must work together to dismantle these barriers, so the thousands of mothers, fathers and children who need medical cannabis can get it.
Limited Qualifying Conditions
The AMMA allows patients with chronic pain, muscle spasms or any of eight specific conditions to get legal marijuana through state-sanctioned medical dispensaries. Those eight conditions were enumerated in the act passed by voters.
Since then, attempts have been made to add migraines, depression, anxiety and PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions. The state has rejected all of these attempts despite overwhelming evidence from around the globe that cannabis is an effective treatment. Interestingly, many other states, including our neighbors New Mexico and California, already include these conditions; and as more states like Nevada enact their medical marijuana programs, these conditions also are being included.
Arizona’s Department of Health Service’s rejections were based on a lack of U.S. clinical studies showing the efficacy of cannabis. But in other parts of the world where research has not been prohibited by the government, clinical science continually proves that cannabis is an effective treatment for these illnesses. If this same high bar of U.S. clinical trials were applied to Arizona’s current qualifying conditions, none would pass muster. For example, there are no U.S. clinical trials showing that medical marijuana is effective against Crohn’s disease. Meanwhile, Arizona politicians fight to block funding for new trials.
Many Arizona veterans find relief from PTSD after qualifying for medical marijuana cards for other conditions. For example, Bloom Dispensaries serves more than 1,300 veterans. Yet DHS has twice declined to add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions, citing a “lack of data.”
One patient who we’ll call Ted is 32. He got a medical card for chronic pain, but the cannabis also relieves his PTSD symptoms. He was abused as a child in foster care and now, 20 years later, suffers from nightmares, severe anxiety, depression and paranoia. Cannabis allows him do things most of us take for granted.
“I have a hard time taking out the trash, but when I use cannabis, I can take out the trash. I can go outside,” Ted said.
Health Services’ stance on adding qualifying conditions prevents thousands of patients, including veterans, the elderly and the disabled, from getting the medicine they need. It’s simply unfair to set a different standard for adding new qualifying conditions than was initially required, especially while it remains so difficult to conduct cannabis research in this country.
High Cost of Qualifying
Dispensaries across the Valley receive questions daily about how to cut the cost of getting a medical marijuana card. Unfortunately, there are few answers.
Only two states charge more than Arizona’s $150 annual fee, and if you add the cost of a physician recommendation, which is often another $150, the cost is out of reach for many. Montana, Hawaii and Alaska charge just $25, while New Mexico and Maine have no fee at all. Over and over we hear that the high cost of a medical marijuana card prevents patients access to medicine.
For example, Bloom Dispensaries has an HIV patient who hits this barrier every year. This man in his 50s, who because of the lingering stigma of HIV asked not to be identified, lives on a $1,300 monthly disability check. He is dismayed that he is forced to pay for an evaluation every year to “prove” he is still HIV positive, then pay for state registration. His $1300 monthly disability check is too much money to qualify for SNAP, which would give him a half-price card.
“I need it, but I can’t afford to pay $150 every year, plus pay for a naturopath, plus have to pay for the medication itself,” he said.
We commend DHS for proposing half-price cards for veterans and the disabled, and we appreciate half-price cards for low-income patients, but it’s not enough. No one in the medical marijuana community wants any patient to worry about affording the care they need, and we believe the state fee should be dramatically reduced or eliminated entirely. It is the right thing to do.
Lack of Physician Education
In addition to questions from patients, questions from doctors abound.
Despite the growing mountain of evidence that marijuana is a safe, effective treatment for a broad range of ailments, many physicians still know little about it. When doctors are in the dark, patients are in the dark. This leaves the patient without a trusted source for medical information. The Valley needs a formal system to connect physicians with cannabis science.
Our medical marijuana program can never reach its full potential to heal without the help of the medical community. Having physicians onboard means more patients onboard, and that means more healthy lives – that’s what any health services program should be about. The time to debate has passed. The time to educate is now.
A Flourishing Program
As we enter into the fourth year of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, we see progress all around us – in science, state regulation, the courts, and law enforcement. However, we have a long way to go before all patients can benefit from this pioneering program. Roadblocks still exist on every level.
Federal banking and interstate commerce rules slow economic development and stymie growth. State restrictions prevent patients from getting medical marijuana cards, and local law enforcement continues to fight to keep patients from the medicine they need.
No single group can make our medical marijuana system a success. Only when the state, dispensaries and patients work together can we continue to improve Arizona’s medical marijuana system, and give patients the flourishing lives they deserve.