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The Need for Weed 

It will be months before Southern Arizona's medical-marijuana system is fully in place

More and more people are getting their marijuana-patient cards since the DHS opened its online application system on April 14—and those patients remain susceptible to arrest and possibly prosecution because of existing city and federal laws.

More and more people are getting their marijuana-patient cards since the DHS opened its online application system on April 14—and those patients remain susceptible to arrest and possibly prosecution because of existing city and federal laws.

At a Starbucks on the far eastside of Tucson, Michelle B. Graye and Stu Green make no attempt to hide their devotion to marijuana. After all, they're wearing green-leaf-emblazoned T-shirts and buttons.

As volunteers for AZ4NORML, Graye and Green worked nonstop for months to gather signatures to get Proposition 203, which made medical marijuana legal in Arizona, on the ballot.

Their efforts worked—barely, as the initiative passed by only 4,340 votes out of more than 1.67 million cast. However, medical-weed advocates like Graye, who estimates she collected some 1,533 signatures on her own for the initiative, like to point out that although Prop 203 barely passed statewide, in Pima County, medical marijuana got 25,000 more votes than Jan Brewer.

"We worked very hard on that, especially Michelle," Green says. "Without our help, it wouldn't have passed. Those provisional votes from Pima County put us over the top."

Graye pulls a pink women's makeup case out of a tote bag, and takes out a pink highlighter—which opens to reveal a small pipe.

"This is what a student at the UA used, innocently smoking outside of his dorm room, when he was arrested by a couple of off-duty police officers. It cost him $1,700 to take care of it in court, but the arrest could cost him his financial aid," she says, tucking the highlighter back into the bag.

Next, Graye takes out a mini-cupcake—made out of chocolate brownie mix, a marijuana tincture she makes, and what she calls canna butter, a butter she prepares with marijuana, used for cooking what those in the medicinal-weed world call "edibles."

Graye holds up the cupcake and makes note of the little hemp seeds sprinkled on top for an extra bit of nutrition.

"I knew someone with cancer who kept these in the freezer, and they took out two every morning for their day, depending on how they were feeling," Graye explains. "Something like this is easy to ingest, and for most medical-marijuana patients, it's easier to take the medicine through an edible."

Graye hands over a DVD called Get Baked—Cannabis Infusion Baking: Short and Sweet, a three-part series of marijuana-cooking instructions starring a red-headed chef named Patrick who seems ready to be the Bobby Flay of MJ. The recipes on the DVD—for canna butter, a candy called canna doodles, and canna brownies—are all from Graye, but a group of local film students helped put the videos together.

"We're giving these out. It's one way we can help patients not be afraid to try making their own edibles. Most medicinal-marijuana patients haven't tried marijuana before recreationally, or if they did, it was a long time ago," Graye says.

When a Tucson Police Department officer walks in, Graye—who was the second person in Arizona to receive a medical-marijuana patient card from the state Department of Health Services (DHS)—gingerly slides the cupcake back into the little pink bag.

The officer's arrival highlights the importance of the worn clipboard next to Graye's bag. It carries papers focusing on a new initiative which would change how comfortable people like Graye feel when carrying small amounts of marijuana with them in public.

Right now, it can be considered a felony to have any amount of marijuana in your possession. However, more and more are people getting their marijuana-patient cards since the DHS opened its online application system on April 14—and those patients remain susceptible to arrest and possibly prosecution because of existing city and federal laws.

Green and Graye formed a political committee in February, called Good Day Sunshine, to gather signatures to put a local initiative, called Sensible Tucson, on the Nov. 8 ballot. It would make possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and paraphernalia a petty offense that comes with a $25 fine for a first-time offender.

It's a decriminalization effort, Green says, but at the same time, the law would make it easier for cities to deal with the complications of medical marijuana, and would "free up law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes."

Green points out similar and successful decriminalization efforts in other cities that have medical-marijuana programs, like Ann Arbor, Mich.; Breckenridge, Colo.; Denver, Colo.; and Santa Barbara, Calif.

"When we're out collecting signatures, people thank us," Green says. "If you think about the number of people who voted for Prop 203 ... we feel confident (Sensible Tucson) will pass."

Green says up to 60 percent of folks arrested for possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana are often prosecuted and sentenced to prison, each costing taxpayers about $40,000 per year.

"That's insensible and ridiculous," Green says.

Any change in local drug policy could also help ease the political realities that lie ahead for medical marijuana patients—including access to the medicine.

Those who currently use marijuana to help with chronic pain issues or other health problems buy their weed illegally. That may continue while patients wait for dispensaries to open and have marijuana available. Later, some patients may find that they can't afford the products sold at the dispensaries, which could cost from $200 to $400 for every ounce. Black-market weed costs around $80 for a couple of ounces.

"We picked 2.5 ounces in our (Sensible Tucson) initiative to match the medical number," Green says, referring to the 2.5 ounces of marijuana which patients are allowed to get from a dispensary every two weeks.

"We're thinking about patients, but also people who are not. Maybe they have an ailment that may not be on the DHS list of approved conditions, or they can't afford the fees, so they're not able to medicate legally," Green says.

The goal is to collect enough signatures to make sure they have the 9,534 legitimate signatures needed by the July 7 deadline to get the initiative placed on the ballot.

While the state Department of Health Services is now issuing medical-marijuana ID cards to qualified patients, it will be months—or longer—before the medical-marijuana system is fully functional.

On June 1, the DHS will start processing dispensary applications, and will do so for 30 days.

The DHS is expected to distribute between 120 to 136 dispensary-registration certificates in the state. Certificates are allocated according to the Community Health Analysis Areas, geographic areas based on populations which were established by the DHS and are used for public-health programs. This is an attempt by the department to make sure dispensaries are spread across the state based on population. It's unclear how many of those registration certificates will be issued for dispensaries in Southern Arizona.

The city of Tucson has been accepting zoning applications from potential dispensary operators for months. Pima County is doing the same; although the county and city zoning rules do have some differences, both prevent dispensaries from opening near churches, day-care centers, schools and drug-rehab centers.

According to Pima County Assistant Planning Director Chris Poirier, as of press time, Pima County had yet to receive any dispensary applications.

On the other hand, Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin says the city has received 31 applications. So far, 19 of those have received conditional approval, while two were rejected. Each approved applicant gets a letter from the city to give to the DHS.

After the DHS receives the dispensary applications throughout June, it could reportedly take up to three months before any dispensaries are approved. Dispensary owners will then need to install the required security and camera systems.

And what about the weed? Dispensaries will need to grow it, and mature plants that produce those beautiful buds take about six months to cultivate.

Graye, who suffers from chronic pain, which qualified her for a patient card, also got approval from the DHS to cultivate her own marijuana. According to the law, Graye can grow up to 12 plants for her own consumption. However, only people who live at least 25 miles away from the nearest dispensary can cultivate their own marijuana.

Since patient and cultivation approvals came before dispensary approvals, enforcement of the cultivation rule probably won't happen until next year. Graye says that when she goes to renew her card, the DHS will notify her if she's too close to a dispensary. However, she's hoping that she'll be grandfathered in, even if she lives within 25 miles of a dispensary.

People can also apply to the DHS to be a caregiver. According to the law, caregivers can grow for up to five patients, at 12 plants per patient and themselves. That comes to 72 plants.

"That's how patients are going to be able to get marijuana: Either find a caregiver, or grow their own. I'm not even sure that once dispensaries are approved to open that they will (open), because of possible litigation based on paperwork and other disputes. Who knows? It could be years," Green says.

Each dispensary applicant is required to pay a $5,000 application fee with the DHS. Many applicants are filing several dispensary applications to increase their chances of being approved, because the selection of approved applicants will be handled like a lottery.

Out of each $5,000 application fee, only $1,000 is returned. That's how the DHS was reportedly able to put together the $1 million it needed to start the program.

"It's money versus compassion. There are those who want to get people the medicine they need, and those who may not care so much. Sometimes, those inside the industry are the worst thing for the industry," Green says.

Green and Graye and other AZ4NORML volunteers are organizing a medical-marijuana cooperative, including caregivers and medical-marijuana patients who are growing their own weed. They envision those caregivers and patients coming together—and using the AZ4NORML office, which fits dispensary zoning requirements—to trade different varieties.

"No money would be exchanged," Graye says.

Another goal of AZ4NORML is to educate patients on the kinds of marijuana strains that would benefit them.

"Since dispensaries are not opening anytime soon, this will help us make sure that first grow is successful without the interference of corporate entities," Green says.

If you're interested in cultivating your own medical marijuana, Graye suggests either ordering seeds through seed banks in Amsterdam. However, technically, "It's illegal to receive marijuana seeds through the U.S. Postal Service, but the postman probably won't know unless the contents spill out," Graye says, smiling.

"My seeds will go outdoors," Graye says, even though marijuana aficionados tend to view outdoor-grown marijuana as being of lesser quality. "But that's not entirely true. They are perfect for a medical marijuana patient. This isn't someone who is looking to get stoned out of their mind."

Graye adds that she plans to give out seeds to anyone who wants to grow their own for medicinal use, and she will share the extra cuttings she cultivates.

City of Tucson Zoning Administrator Craig Gross is the city's medical-marijuana guru, in charge of the dispensary applications coming into the Planning Department. He says there are still a few kinks to work out, and he agrees with Green and Graye that once dispensaries are approved, it will be a while before they are open for business, in part because of all the building improvements required by the initiative and the city.

Currently, the DHS requires all dispensaries to have only one entrance for security purposes. However, city codes require a fire exit. Then there is a possible issue for people, like Graye, who want to grow some of their medical-marijuana plants outdoors: Gross says DHS rules require outdoor growers to build a 10-foot wall, but city codes prevent 10-foot walls in residential areas.

"Obviously, there are a few things that need to be figured out," Gross says.

At a panel discussion hosted by ACLU of Arizona on Wednesday, April 27, at the Pima Community College West Campus, it was obvious that there are many other questions that also need to be answered.

Chuck Demers, a 78-year-old retiree who attended the panel, says he hopes medical marijuana can help him with the effects of his cancer treatment—for example, regaining his appetite. But the thought of getting on a computer for several hours, scanning in documents and including a picture of himself—required to get a patient card—seems absolutely daunting.

"I have a computer at home that I (use to) check e-mails from my grandkids, but I don't even know what a scanner looks like. I don't know how to get a picture on my application," Demers says, his hands shaking as he talks. "I like the idea, but I don't see how someone like me is going to be able to do this."

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin made it clear at the panel that legal ramifications are also murky, since the possession of marijuana and paraphernalia remain felonies.

"We're certainly going to have some interesting prosecution issues," Rankin says. "And remember, under federal law, it is still a crime. ... There is this real tension. because what has been made legal through the state is a crime through federal law."

The letters provided to dispensary operators by the city include a sentence stating that even though the city has approved the application, marijuana is still illegal federally, and "you are operating at your own risk," Rankin says.

Rankin explains a recent case in which a defendant was charged with possessing marijuana, and a day or two after his arrest, he got his patient card from the DHS—and is now filing a motion to dismiss the charge.

"I suspect it will be opposed since (the man got his patient card) after the fact ... but those are the kind of things we expect to see more of," Rankin says.

On Monday, May 2, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke sent a letter to DHS Director Will Humble, in which Burke made it clear that the feds may prosecute individuals manufacturing, distributing or marketing marijuana, despite the state medical-marijuana law. However, in the letter—posted on the DHS website—Burke also noted that Justice Department prosecutors have been told not to devote time and resources to prosecuting seriously ill patients who use medical marijuana.

During the ACLU panel discussion, Andrew Myers, who was the director of the Yes on Proposition 203 campaign, told Rankin he'd be disappointed if the city and county attorneys decided to prosecute.

That comment got the most applause of the night. Someone also adds, "And a waste of tax money."

Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías brought a personal perspective to the panel, saying that he wants to make sure "there is equal application of the law across the board."

Elías says two older women whom he loved dearly—both died not long ago—both used marijuana to feel better. One had diabetes, and the other had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"There used to be herbal stores that sold different kinds of herbs ... and it's considered real, and it's legitimate, and has made the difference in the quality of life for people who are sick since time immemorial. ... How will we understand the moral stigmas that the United States has attached to marijuana use?" Elías asks.

From the audience, Kimberly Haslett harshly criticizes the dispensary zoning ordinances adopted by the city of Tucson and Pima County. Haslett, director and founder the SW Arizona Patient Alliance (SWAPA), described the zoning requirements as unreasonable and ridiculous.

"Dispensaries can't be near drug-rehab centers, but there's nothing that prevents a bar near a rehab," Haslett says. "It is hurting the patients. We would like an open dialogue with the county and ask that they base their zoning on facts and education, and not fear-mongering."

Elías tells Haslett that he anticipates the county may revisit the medical-marijuana zoning ordinance to make revisions after seeing how the first year goes.

"For better or worse, we left ourselves some latitude to go back and change zoning in another six months so we can take a look at what's actually going on. ... I think we tried to be fair and intelligent about it, and we will wait to hear from folks and see how it works out," Elías says.

Kimberly Haslett operates SWAPA (www.swarizonapatientalliance.org), an organization she started shortly after Prop 203 passed, out of part of an insurance office on Oracle Road in Oro Valley.

During the Prop 203 campaign, Haslett says, she volunteered with AZ4NORML.

"I had a mother who survived cancer, and an aunt who had bone cancer, and both suffered terribly. I helped my aunt with cannabis the last month of her life in West Virginia. She hadn't been downstairs for months, but with cannabis, she came downstairs and played gin rummy with us on the porch and had ice cream," Haslett says.

Haslett considers Oro Valley to be her community, and she admits it's more conservative than Tucson. After representing SWAPA on the evening news, most of her neighbors now know where she stands on medical marijuana.

"Sure, there are some who think it's just for people who want to get high, but there are also people you'd never expect who seem to understand why I'm doing this," Haslett says. "It was like coming out of the closet. But it's important for people to know my heart is in the right place. I really just want to help patients."

Haslett's group is completely volunteer-run. Corey Miller, a U.S. Army veteran wounded in Afghanistan, helps with policy and advocacy, often taking calls from people who've discovered SWAPA and need help navigating the DHS online application form, or who are trying to figure out how to talk to their doctor about a recommendation for a patient card.

"We've found that 20 percent of patients don't have access to computers. They can come here. We can guide them through the process," Miller says.

Haslett says other groups are interested in charging people up to $300 to help with their applications, but SWAPA only charges a $10 membership fee for a whole year. "They become members, and we keep all their information confidential," she says.

Haslett also wants to start a fund to help patients who need financial assistance to pay the $150 fee for a patient card (or $75, if on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and on Friday, April 29, the group had a fundraiser and education night at The Hut on Fourth Avenue.

Jill Wohlfeil volunteers with SWAPA as the director of community outreach. She got involved because of her own experience with transverse myelitis. She woke up one morning about 11 years ago paralyzed from the chest down; now she deals with spinal-cord pain that burns up and down her back.

"I take a lot of medications, and some are bad for my liver. I don't want to keep taking narcotics. That's why I'm so interested," Wohlfeil says.

Miller has his own personal interest in medical marijuana. His injury in Afghanistan left him with nerve damage on the left side of his body, and he has titanium in his feet. Marijuana has helped him control the pain.

He also understands it helps some veterans with post-traumatic-stress disorder.

"But PTSD is not a qualifying condition. That's one of the things we are trying to change. In July, there will be another hearing to add more qualifications. Many veterans are coming back, and this has the potential to make a difference for them," Miller says.

While Haslett has focused on SWAPA since Prop 203 passed, she admits that her first interest involved opening a dispensary. The Tucson Weekly found several corporate applications filed by Haslett and her husband with the Arizona Corporation Commission, under the company name Mother Earth Dispensaries.

Haslett says she has the financial backing, but is frustrated by the zoning laws and negative attitudes about marijuana. "One issue is that we have a government that is still so antagonistic when it comes to marijuana. Also, my husband has a business he's had for 36 years, and in my community, no one knew I am an advocate for medical marijuana until recently."

If she decides to try to open a dispensary, Haslett wants to open one in Oro Valley. However, at the properties she's looked at, landlords have asked other tenants how they feel about being in the same area as a dispensary. The tenants objected.

"They did this without even allowing us to present ourselves. People are making these decisions based on bad information and scare tactics that dispensaries are high-crime, when that is totally not true," Haslett says.

"My goal is to reach the people who I live around. I want to stay in this area. But the zoning is restrictive, and Pima County could really use the revenue. It seems like they're shooting themselves in the foot."

Haslett says her biggest problem with the medical-marijuana zoning requirements is the fact that dispensaries can't be located near day-care centers, rehab centers, churches, schools or even dance studios.

"And there are also a lot of landlords who are taking advantage. I've found some spaces going for $40 per square foot, but in the same building next door, they're charging $17 per square foot."

This increase in costs would be passed on to the customer—and in this case, Haslett says, that customer is the patient. Like Graye and Green, Haslett says she'd prefer not to see that happen. Instead, she'd like focus on "compassionate care."

"Right now, I can do that at SWAPA. I can help people figure this stuff out. Someone has to."


FOR MORE INFORMATION

In order to buy, possess and use up to 2.5 ounces of medical weed every two weeks, or to grow 12 plants, you'll need a patient card.

First, get your doctor to sign off on the recommendation form, which you can download from the Arizona Department of Health Services website, and then submit your application, which you can also get at the DHS website: www.azdhs.gov/medicalmarijuana.

Be prepared to sign a statement that you won't share your weed with someone who does not have a patient card. You'll also need a photo of yourself that you can upload to the website, proof of U.S. citizenship, the physician's recommendation, proof of residence, an e-mail address, a mailing address and a copy of your Arizona driver's license.

Again, for everything on Arizona's medical marijuana law and regulations, that website is www.azdhs.gov/medicalmarijuana.

For more information on the Sensible Tucson ballot initiative and local marijuana-related events, visit www.az4norml.org.

The city of Tucson has its medical marijuana dispensary application and zoning information online at cms3.tucsonaz.gov/planning/4508.

For information on Pima County dispensary applications and zoning, call Development Services at 740-6800.

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