Word Worries

Interpretation is the key with some of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act's language

I've been a writer for more than two decades, but I've never been much of a grammar Nazi.

You know the type—they harass you on Facebook every time you slip up and use bad grammar or spelling or punctuation. Niggling over "your" and "you're" and commas usually seems to me like a failed exercise in supposed superiority, but earlier this month, Pima County Superior Court Judge Richard Fields ruled on some absent punctuation, dismissing felony charges against a Tucson medical marijuana patient and sparking huge implications for medical marijuana patients.

Suddenly, I'm a grammar Nazi.

The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act has, up to now, been interpreted by police and courts to allow patient-to-patient transfer of meds, as long as nothing of value is exchanged. You can give cannabis to any other patient, any time you want, but you can't sell it to him ... her ... them ...whatever.

Here's how the AMMA reads:

"A registered qualifying patient or registered designated caregiver is not subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner, or denial of any right or privilege, including any civil penalty or disciplinary action by a court or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau:


For offering or providing marijuana to a registered qualifying patient or a registered designated caregiver for the registered qualifying patient's medical use or to a registered nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary if nothing of value is transferred in return and the person giving the marijuana does not knowingly cause the recipient to possess more than the allowable amount of marijuana."

Since judges are paid grammar Nazis, among other things, Fields ruled that this wording could be interpreted at least four ways. Prosecutors claim the "nothing of value" phrase applies to dispensaries and other patients. Jeremy Matlock, who is charged with a fistful of felonies for growing and selling cannabis, claims it applies only to dispensaries.

In dismissing the charges, Fields noted that under the state's own interpretation, a patient would have to both sell cannabis and cause the patient to go over his possession allotment to violate the AMMA. Matlock didn't sell enough cannabis to do that, so the state's own argument makes him not guilty.

So Fields dismissed all charges against Matlock.

Pima County Attorney Barbara Lawall's office, which has up to now taken a hard line against legal cannabis, is sure to send this case to appeal, but it seems to me the Arizona Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court will have a hard time ruling any other way. It's not like the law is slightly difficult to interpret. It's kind of a mess, and when that happens under Arizona law, the defendant wins.

The implications are huge for patients, because if patients could suddenly sell to each other, a lot of us would bypass dispensaries and potentially save a bunch of money. As of June, there were roughly 2,500 patients authorized to grow. That's a lot of cannabis to offer or provide to a registered qualifying patient or a registered designated caregiver for the registered qualifying patient's medical use.

Patient-growers would be able to bypass a lot of the hassle of commercial growing. They aren't regulated or inspected or licensed the way dispensaries are. I'm certain the state Department of Health Services and police will be all up in arms about this ruling, but I think it's exactly what we need.

I'd usually rather get my cannabis from a friend than a dispensary, and I'd rather have the state as minimally involved as possible. The system we have in Arizona has virtually eliminated the little guy from the cannabis sales equation. Only moneyed people opened dispensaries, and only moneyed people will ever be able to. This ruling, if it stands, gives the little guys a chance to get into the cannabis business.

And I'm a fan of that.

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