The Struggle Continues

Continuing the state's anti-marijuana trend, several proposals by GOP lawmakers want to make it make it harder for patients to access medical weed

As it's been the tradition for several years, the 2016 legislative session began with nearly a handful of proposals hoping to burn down the state's medical marijuana industry. Whether any of them will see the light of day is still up for debate, but the bills still fired up medical weed advocates, who are sick and tired of state lawmakers continuously attacking the 2010 voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.

Perhaps the most offensive proposal that asked to amend the AMMA, according to Tucson naturopathic doctor Heather Moroso, was bill HCR 2019 by state Rep. Jay Lawrence, a Republican from Scottsdale. The bill—which Lawrence ended up dropping on Friday—would have prohibited physicians who practice alternative medicine, such as naturopathy and homeopathy, from prescribing medical marijuana, leaving only doctors of medicine and osteopathy as options.

"Medical marijuana is not something that is taught in medical school. [A naturopathist] already knows herbs. What is [Lawrence's] logic? [That] MDs are more qualified," Moroso says. Plus, she says, it is not likely a doctor will prescribe medical marijuana. Doctors working at federally-funded organizations can lose their license if they prescribe medical weed to a patient, because at a national level marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug—meaning it is considered more harmful than methamphetamine.

With more than 87 percent of medical marijuana patients getting their prescriptions from either a naturopath or a homeopath, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services' 2015 annual report—the bill was a clear attempt to greatly limit the flow of medical marijuana cards. And, without 87 percent of customers, marijuana dispensaries would nearly go extinct.

As of AZDHS' last count in July 2015, there are more than 80,000 Arizonans with medical marijuana cards—an all-time high. Last year, there were about 65,000 registered patients.

Lawrence's whole argument for his bill was that there are physicians who wrongfully prescribe medical cannabis. He later told the Arizona Capitol Times that he became aware this isn't the case, as physicians review medical records prior to issuing a weed referral.

Moroso agrees that there are people in the field who may issue medical marijuana recommendations left and right, without much medical depth. But this shouldn't make other physicians like herself a target for tough regulations, she says. She spends at least 45 minutes with each of her patients, carefully examining whether cannabis is even an adequate path to relieve their conditions, she adds.

HCR 2019 also required qualifying patients to get a referral for a new MMJ card every six months, rather than once a year, and made it a class 2 felony to provide medical weed to minors.

Lawrence introduced the measure as a House Concurrent Resolution, meaning it could have become law only if it was approved by voters. But first, it had the burden of getting three-fourths of votes both in the state House and Senate to pass—since it attempted to change a statute that was approved by voters.

Another bill, HB 2061, introduced by state Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would remove pregnant women from the list of patients who qualify for medical weed.

"This [bill] has a tremendous impact on women's rights and medical rights ... [it is] targeting women," says Mikel Weisser, state director for the Arizona chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

This proposal gained more momentum than Lawrence's former bill. The measure was assigned to a committee, went through two readings and was scheduled to a hearing on Jan. 19 that was later canceled, Weisser says.

HB 2404: The bill by Republican state Rep. Vince Leach wants to get rid of a discount on medical marijuana card fees for food stamp recipients. Currently, people on food stamps pay the state $75 instead of the regular $150.

HB 2405: Leach is double-dipping with this one. The measure is trying to prohibit marijuana cultivation in roofless facilities, and overall limit where marijuana is grown.

This story is an updated version of the MMJ article that ran in our Jan. 28 print edition.

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