Brandi Atkins, an Arizona resident and former dancer, was diagnosed in late 2015 with a rare autoimmune disease that made her joints and muscles swell, causing chronic pain. She popped in and out of the hospital with a cornucopia of prescription medications handed out to alleviate her pain, ease her symptoms, and navigate around her type 1 diabetes. These medications would often clash with her disease and cause her blood sugar to soar. In desperation, she turned to medical marijuana.
Almost immediately, Adkins noticed an improvement in balance, palatable reduction in pain, and (most importantly) hope for her future. The dispensary she visited took the time to understand her specific concerns, her goals, and the particulars of her health conditions. Thanks to medical marijuana, Adkins feels like she can dance again.
This hopeful scenario plays out in dispensaries across Arizona, where more than 100,000 patients suffering everything from epilepsy to chronic pain find relief through medical marijuana.
It’s an interesting situation: legalized medical marijuana and dispensaries in one of the United States’ most conservative territories. How do these conflicting events coexist? Have you ever wondered what exactly is the state of medical marijuana affairs in Arizona? Here’s our in-depth explanation of everything you always wanted to know about Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Laws (but were too afraid to ask).
The road to marijuana legalization in Arizona
Arizona Marijuana Legalization
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When the federal government originally passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the predecessor to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, all American states had criminalized cannabis in one way or another. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Arizona state legislators began listening to decades-long calls for marijuana law reform.
In 1996, Arizona passed Proposition 200, allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana (specifically, controlled substances) to treat diseases or relieve pain in seriously/terminally ill patients. In order for a patient to use medical marijuana, a doctor had to provide scientific evidence to prove marijuana’s usefulness along with a second doctor’s opinion to the Arizona Department of Health Services. This caused conflict between supporters and opponents of medical marijuana, and started a lengthy battle over the law’s lack of specificity in addition to the language “prescribe.” For a doctor to prescribe medicine, the substance must first undergo FDA trials and doctors must specify the exact dosage and consumption methods to be used. Unfortunately, this rendered Prop 200 illegal on a federal scope and a medical marijuana program never materialized. It did, however, protect first-time drug offenders from prison sentences, which was a step towards decriminalization.
Arizona tried once more to legalize medical marijuana in 2002 with Proposition 203, but the initiative failed, receiving 42.7% of the vote. A viable solution was not presented and approved until nearly a decade later.
In 2010, Arizonans voted to approve a much-revised version of Proposition 203, an initiative to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana. Proposition 203 authorized doctors to recommend cannabis as a therapeutic option, as opposed to prescribing a specific dosage of cannabis with strict consumption or application methods. This law also tasked the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) to regulate the “Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.”
Arizona’s current marijuana policy
The ADHS had until April 2012 to establish a registration application system for patients and nonprofit marijuana dispensaries, as well as a web-based verification platform for use by law officials and dispensaries to verify a patient’s status as such. It also specified patients’ rights, qualifying medical conditions, and allowed out-of-state medical marijuana patients to maintain their patient status (though not to purchase cannabis).
On December 6, 2012, Arizona’s first licensed medical marijuana dispensary opened in Glendale.
In 2012, Arizona legislators amended the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act to include college and university campuses in their non-consumption list, even if the cardholder was over 21 years old. However, in April 2017, this ruling was overturned by the Arizona Court of Appeals, and though colleges can privately prohibit medical marijuana on campus, lawmakers cannot make campus cannabis use illegal.
The people of Arizona took advantage of the Department of Health’s qualifying condition appeal process in 2013 when they petitioned to include PTSD, migraines, and depression among the list of qualifying medical conditions. Following due process, the Director of the ADHS denied the petition.
While it seemed like the Arizona population was becoming more tolerant of cannabis, it proved too soon to jump to recreational legalization. In 2016, Arizonans narrowly voted no on Prop 205 by a margin of 48:52, which would have legalized the adult use of marijuana. Ballotpedia attributes this loss to heavy early campaigning by opponents of recreational marijuana years before the election process. Opponents such as Insys, the creators of Fentanyl, lobbied heavily against recreational cannabis — their CBD medicine passed the first phases of FDA trials earlier in 2016. This loss resulted in a significant surge in new medical marijuana patients, many of whom were waiting to get their card only if the recreational law failed to pass.
Despite various lawmakers’ attempts to place limitations on Arizona’s medical marijuana law, the program is growing larger each year. As of late June 2017, there were 132,487 Arizona marijuana patients, 155 dispensary licenses (up from 124 at the law’s passage), and 881 patient caregivers.
The “Arizona Medical Marijuana Act”
The “Arizona Medical Marijuana Act,” or AMMA, empowers Arizona doctors to recommend medical marijuana as a viable treatment option for Arizona patients diagnosed with at least one qualifying medical condition. With this recommendation, a patient may apply for an Arizona Medical Marijuana Card, a card that allows patients to possess, purchase, and use medical marijuana.
Arizona marijuana patients or caregivers may possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at any given time, and obtain 2.5 ounces in a 14-day period from an Arizona medical marijuana dispensary. Patients can also be authorized to grow up to 12 marijuana plants for their own use, or otherwise, find a caregiver to grow cannabis for them if they reside more than 25 miles from the nearest medical marijuana dispensary.
Living as a medical marijuana patient
For Arizonans like Brandi Atkins — mentioned at the beginning of this article — who think medical marijuana might be right for them, patients must receive a recommendation to use medical marijuana from a licensed Arizona physician. The patient must have one of the below qualifying medical conditions, and their physician must determine that the patient indeed has a qualifying condition. The written certification would state the doctor believes, in their professional opinion, the patient would likely receive therapeutic benefit from medical marijuana use.
Arizona’s list of debilitating qualifying conditions
Once a patient has received their written certification from an Arizona doctor, they may apply to the ADHS for a Registry Identification Card, a card that grants patients and caregivers the authority to possess, purchase, and use medical marijuana legally.
To apply for a Registry Identification Card, patients must submit their written certification, the application fee, their personal information, and a statement declaring they won’t use their medical marijuana for nefarious purposes (i.e. sell it to kids). If a minor wants to be a medical marijuana patient, there are stricter rules to follow before they can qualify for their card. The ADHS website explains the application process in more detail.
The most “caring” of the bunch
Some patients in critical need of cannabis are unable to travel easily to purchase or even consume cannabis without some assistance. Arizona included regulations to cover the people who would take care of these patients, known as Caregivers, allowing them to assist patients (up to five) in the medical use of marijuana.
Whether taking care of a child or an elderly parent, this endeavor is a huge responsibility. Caregivers need to educate themselves on the different aspects of marijuana, like different strains, consumption methods, and their patients’ specific health needs. Arizona caregivers must follow all the same regulations as patients, including registering with the ADHS and carrying an ID card.
Don’t worry, the law protects you!
As federal law still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug (without medicinal value), Prop 203 and other medical cannabis laws were designed to protect citizens’ rights. Arizona medical marijuana patients are supposed to be treated like every other resident. The AMMA’s regulations protect the rights of patients and caregivers in certain circumstances:
- A school or landlord may not refuse to enroll/lease to a qualifying patient unless failing to do so would incur ramifications under federal law.
- Medical facilities cannot deny treatment to patients based on their status as a medical marijuana user.
- Parental rights cannot be denied based on a parent’s status as an Arizona medical marijuana patient.
While these protections are essential, they do not provide for every eventuality. Employers may not discriminate against employees who are medical marijuana patients, and may not penalize them for a positive drug test. However, employees cannot use or possess marijuana during the hours of work. Employers may lawfully discipline and even terminate any employee who tests positive for marijuana if they used or possessed during work hours, even if the employee is a registered patient.
Despite nearly 20 years of progress toward decriminalization and regulation, Arizona is still one of the toughest states in the nation when it comes to marijuana. Even minor possession is a felony for those who aren’t medical marijuana patients, with a max sentence of 3.75 years and a $150,000 fine.
I’m a physician, what part do I play in medical marijuana?
“I have found in my study of these patients that Cannabis is really a safe, effective and non-toxic alternative to many standard medications.” -Philip Denney, MD, Testimony to the Arkansas legislature in support of House Bill 1303, “An Act to Permit the Medical Use of Marijuana,” Nov. 17, 2005.
Doctors are the gatekeepers to medical marijuana. In all medically legal states, doctors must fully evaluate their patients and determine whether cannabis is a fit for their medical needs and whether they have a qualifying condition. This places a lot of responsibility on doctors’ shoulders, which most Arizona doctors bear with professionalism and true concern for their patients. The physician must be a doctor of medicine, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, a naturopathic physician, or a homeopathic physician who holds a valid license to practice in Arizona.