More than 13,000 Arizonans approved for medical marijuana - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

More than 13,000 Arizonans approved for medical marijuana

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Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2011 3:42 pm

Exactly five months into the voter-approved program, more than 13,000 Arizonans now have the state's legal permission to get high.

And at this rate, 32,000 of your friends and neighbors will be card-carrying medical marijuana users when the system hits the first anniversary.

But state Health Director Will Humble said he cannot predict ultimately what percentage of Arizonans will become medical marijuana users. He said, though, there is no immediate indication that the figure will hit 200,000 any time soon, the number of people in Colorado - a state of similar size - who possess that state's medical marijuana card.

The latest figures also show that the use of marijuana, at least legally, is not spread equally around the state.

Among the 126 community health districts, the largest numbers are concentrated in a few areas in Scottsdale, north and east Phoenix, as well as the east side of Mesa and southeast Chandler. There also is a pocket in the Peoria area.

But residents of Tucson's Catalina foothills area, and those living on the eastern edge of the city also have lined up for their medical marijuana cards.

And a fair number of Prescott-area residents also are participants.

Humble said there was an initial rush of applications in the days following the April 14 start of the program, with applications coming in at the rate of about 100 a day.

"It's tapered off a little bit," he said. But Humble said the online application system still is getting close to 70 requests each day, leading to his extrapolation of 32,000 users by the middle of next April.

Humble, however, said it's more difficult to make predictions on a longer-term basis.

He pointed out that the cards are good for only one year. And with that annual $150 fee, Humble said some people may decide not to renew.

In some cases, Humble said, their medical situation may have changed. But he said others may have believed that, once they had a card, "they could walk into a dispensary" to pick up their legally permitted 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

"That's probably not going to be the case any time soon," Humble said. His agency has so far refused to license any dispensaries, with attorneys for the state asking a federal court to first rule whether health department workers who process these applications might be subject to federal prosecution for facilitating the possession and sale of marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.

Humble also said the restrictions the health department put on the program may account for the fact that there are not more medical marijuana users in Arizona.

"I think we've done as good a job as we possibly can to keep it as medical as possible," he said, versus a program that was really designed to provide recreational users a legal method to obtain their drugs.

That includes various requirements for doctors to examine patients and review medical records. And Humble has asked medical boards to investigate a handful of doctors who appear to be processing applications at a rapid rate, suggesting it appears they were more interested in making money by issuing marijuana certifications than meeting their patients' legitimate medical needs.

Still, Humble said, his rules can go only so far. The voter-approved law which spells out the conditions under which a doctor can recommend marijuana has a broad catch-all category of "chronic pain," a category cited in more than eight out of every 10 applications.

"There are certainly recreational users in the system," he said. "There's no doubt about that. But I'm pleased with the fact that we've done everything that we can to try to keep it as medical as possible."

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