Fee Rein

What does an innocent question reveal about the future use of the $44 million AMMA fund?

An innocuous request from a state senator has once again turned eyes toward the Arizona Department of Health Service's growing pile of cash graciously provided by the state's medical cannabis patients.

The fund, which now sits at around $44 million according to Capitol Media Services, is the accumulation of annual $150 patient fees and $200 caregiver card fees since the program's inception.

The ADHS has repeatedly defended their legal ability to collect (and not use) in court and at the legislature, but Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, may have some ideas about how that money could be spent.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich provided an opinion Aug. 6 in response to Allen's question on whether the ADHS could use the funds to "help people addicted to drugs." While vague, the answer is generally "yes."

Most people familiar with the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act know that a portion of state constitution provides for the protection of voter initiatives from political meddling.

The Voter Protection Act requires any changes to a law passed by voters to achieve a three-fourths vote from legislature and only if the change "furthers the purpose" of the law.

Depending on one's experience and opinion of cannabis, helping addicts either obviously furthers the purpose of the AMMA or not at all.

Cannabis has rapidly increased in popularity as an addiction treatment for harder drugs like opioids, but exactly how the ADHS would appropriate those funds remains unclear.

Brnovich says expenditures cannot deplete the fund. So as long as the ADHS isn't spending $5 million a year on addiction services, they can clear that hurdle.

As for whether such spending would further the purpose of the AMMA, he cites the act's original ballot measure, which says part of the intention is to "make a distinction between the medical and nonmedical uses of marijuana and ... protect patients" from prosecution.

Most people take the purpose of the AMMA as providing patients with medical cannabis and a market in which to purchase it.

However, interpreting "making a distinction" between legal and illegal uses of the plant opens the door for some disingenuous "addiction education, prevention and treatment."

While we're far from the anti-cannabis clan using AMMA funds to lie to children about how cannabis will kill them (unless they have a patient card), ADHS attitudes toward the program could lean in that direction.

Not only did several attempts to lower card fees fail in the last legislative session, an ongoing court battle over the card fees has made its way up to the Court of Appeals over the high fees.

Arizona has the fourth highest fee in the country, behind $200 in Oregon, New Jersey and Minnesota. It also has more than twice the amount of patients per capita than Oregon and more than tenfold the number of patients per capita in New Jersey and Minnesota.

Ranking as the third largest medical marijuana program in the country, coupled with a constant surplus of millions of dollars, it stands to reason that ADHS could weather at least a modest reduction in fees.

Sean Berberian, attorney in the lawsuit, represents clients who have trouble affording just the fees and rely on cannabis as medication.

He also claims Gov. Doug Ducey and former Gov. Jan Brewer directed the ADHS to keep fees high to deter patients.

Though Ducey's office has denied the claim, the fact that the anti-cannabis club repeatedly justifies card fees as a deterrent while Ducey helps them raise money for their agenda kinda discredits his denial.

Last year, Maricopa Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry agreed with Berberian's assertion but decided there was nothing within her power to change the fact.

Then again, perhaps the ADHS will use the funds to drag people out of addiction treatment scams and into medical marijuana. At least then they'd be able to keep adding to their mountain of gold.

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