State health chief warns cities, counties to zone for medical marijuana - East Valley Tribune: Politics

State health chief warns cities, counties to zone for medical marijuana

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Posted: Sunday, October 3, 2010 2:00 pm | Updated: 4:44 pm, Mon Oct 4, 2010.

Arizona’s top health official has a warning for cities and counties: Get your zoning regulations in order — and soon.

State Health Director Will Humble said Friday if voters approve Proposition 203 next month it falls to him to approve the license requests for the approximately 120 marijuana dispensaries that will be allowed to open up around the state as well as the sites each of them is using to cultivate the crop.

Humble said the only restriction in the voter initiative is that these facilities can’t be within 500 feet of a school. Other than that, he said he has to give the go-ahead if the proposed site meets other legal requirements.

“If the city or town doesn’t have the zoning restriction in place at the time we receive our application, I’ve got no choice but to approve that marijuana dispensary,’’ he said. “It might be next to a playground or a church or a park or someplace that the city’s like, ‘Are you kidding me, Department of Health Services, you let them have the dispensary right next to our playground or our public pool?’ ”

Humble said many of the larger communities already have started the zoning review process. But they may not be moving fast enough.

He pointed out that Proposition 203 directs him to have the program up and running four months after the Secretary of State’s Office certifies the ballot results.

That, he said, puts the deadline sometime in March. And Humble said cities not only need to craft the new zoning regulations by then but also have the legally necessary public hearings and have the changes adopted by elected officials.

Humble said he also fears that officials in many smaller communities are oblivious to the measure and may not have even started thinking about the zoning issues.

The initiative, if approved, would allow anyone with a doctor’s recommendation to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from one of the state-regulated dispensaries.

Proponents of the measure, backed financially by the national Marijuana Policy Project, say there are people with many medical conditions that could benefit from being able to obtain and use the drug. At the moment, though, that is not an option — at least not legally — as possession of any amount of marijuana remains a felony.

That list includes glaucoma.

But that argument has taken a hit from the American Glaucoma Society which issued a warning in its newsletters against sufferers from treating their condition with marijuana.

On one hand, the warning concedes that marijuana does lower the pressure within the eye. But the problem is that effect lasts for only several hours, meaning that patients would need to use the drug day and night.

“Failing to do so can lead to a rebound spike in eye pressure, which can be damaging,’’ the warning states. It also says that marijuana lowers blood pressure, possibly leading to optic nerve damage.

Andrew Myers, who is coordinating the pro-203 campaign, said that should not deter voters from approving the measure.

“A very small percentage of medical marijuana patients are glaucoma patients,’’ he said. And he said there are studies showing marijuana is effective at treating the disease, with glaucoma patients benefitting in other states where the drug already is legal.

Anyway, Myers said, there is no reason that marijuana “should be available as a tool in a physician’s tool kit’’ to deal with not just glaucoma but other diseases.

The initiative also is taking hits from people like Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. She said other states where marijuana has been made legal for medical purposes have shown an increase in crime. And much of that, she said, is related to the distribution system.

“Its primary effect will be to establish a system where drug seekers, including addicts, can easily obtain recreational drugs and where commercial  marijuana dispensaries will become storefronts for dope dealers,’’ she said.

Myers countered that the Arizona law is different than the system in other states, including California. Aside from the limit on the number of dispensaries, he said they have to be non-profit operations and there are background checks required on those who work there.

Humble’s concerns go to the other end of the equation. He worries about the creation of “marijuana medical mills ... where physicians are handing out a marijuana recommendation in 15 minutes in exchange for $150.’’

The health director said he is exploring whether he has the legal authority to put some constraints on physicians, perhaps with an overall monthly limit on the number of recommendations they can issue.

One side issue in the debate is how the change in law will affect employers.

A provision in the initiative makes it illegal for an employer to discipline or fire a worker who has a medical marijuana recommendation solely because of a positive test result for the drug.

Myers said this provision was inserted because the test for marijuana is different than for alcohol and most other drugs: It indicates only residue in the body, not that someone is impaired. He said there is no reason that someone who uses the drug on Sunday should be fired because a test days later shows positive.

It does allow a worker to be disciplined for smoking on the job or for being actually impaired.

But several attorneys who specialize in labor law said that latter option would be difficult for employers to prove, leaving them powerless to run drug-free workplaces.

At this point, the campaign for Proposition 203 is better financed than any opposition. At last report it had $640,523 in donations, most of that from the Marijuana Policy Project. Foes operating as Keep Arizona Drug Free had collected just $6,685.

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