PHOENIX - Will Humble, who runs the state Department of Health Services, is ready to put the state’s recently voter-approved medical marijuana program in place and get back to his normal work.
On March 31, his department will release all the rules governing Arizona’s medical marijuana program. On April 15, patients will be able to begin having medical pot recommendations certified, and on May 1, hopeful dispensary owners will be able to submit their applications for dispensary and cultivation operation licenses.
As Humble puts it, “It’s crunch time,” and the pressure is high to get the rules right. Humble said he hopes that Arizona’s medical marijuana program will achieve a couple major goals, not the least of which is ensuring that legitimate patients will have access to pot and that recreational users will be kept out of the system.
Then he and his department can go back to worrying about all the other duties the Health Department normally is responsible for.
Interest in what the final rules will look like has been high since the November passage of Prop. 203. From potential patients and dispensary owners to those who think medical marijuana is a black mark on the state, the Health Department has been inundated with more than 3,000 comments on two drafts of the rule package, released in December and January.
Humble said it’s been a challenge to try to accommodate those who will be served by the medical marijuana program, as well as those who have opposed it, but he feels the final rules will ultimately lay the groundwork for the sort of system he’s hoping to achieve. Recently, he outlined one of the key changes to expect in the final rules that will be released March 31.
The issue, which has been particularly contentious among those who want to get into the marijuana dispensary business, is how the applicants will be selected to receive licenses. In the January draft rule package, Health Department officials outlined a lottery system of sorts, where one applicant would be randomly selected for each of the 126 Community Health Assessment Areas (CHAAs) spread across the state. Of course, many of the hopeful dispensary owners had a big problem with this, because it meant that if someone could scrape together the $5,000 application fee required to apply for a license, they could be selected, while someone much more qualified may have also applied for the same CHAA.
To address that issue, Humble said he plans to use a two-tiered application, wherein applicants for urban areas have to comply with more stringent qualifications to be entered into the lottery. Because cities have already seen so many zoning and use permit applications in the metro areas around Phoenix and Tucson, Health Department officials believe this will cut down on the chance that unqualified applicants end up considered there. And to urge hopeful dispensary owners to fill all parts of the state, Humble said the department will provide an online tally of how many applications have been submitted for each CHAA. That way, if someone is determined to own a dispensary, but is disappointed that metro areas are saturated with applications, they could see where they might have a better chance to apply and be selected.
Additionally, the rural dispensaries will be allowed to have larger growing operations than the metro-area dispensaries, then sell their pot to dispensaries around Phoenix or Tucson, where cultivation will be allowed in much smaller quantities.
Those measures, Humble should, should cause the program to adequately fill the state and satisfy some of the concerns people have expressed about the lottery system.
Humble stressed that getting parts of the rules right, like the way dispensaries licenses will be doled out, will help ensure the program is effective at providing access for patients while making sure that only the most qualified dispensary license applicants end up in the new pot shop business.
That, Humble hopes, will allow the Health Department to get the system up and running smoothly, so he and his staff can get back to their normal duties.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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