Arizona health director: First-day stats for medical marijuana promising - East Valley Tribune: Health

Arizona health director: First-day stats for medical marijuana promising

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Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2011 8:13 pm | Updated: 8:19 pm, Thu Apr 14, 2011.

The first Arizonan who got state permission to legally smoke marijuana is not some 22-year-old claiming he's in pain.

It's a 60-year-old Scottsdale resident living with Crohn's Disease.

That, coupled with other statistics from the first day Arizonans could get certified to buy, possess and use marijuana, pleases state Health Director Will Humble. He said if the patterns hold, it will prove that Arizona has successfully created a medical marijuana program as opposed to a recreational one.

The state's online application process for certifying people to buy, possess and use marijuana went live at 8 a.m. Thursday. Humble said the first applicant -- his name is not a public record -- had his paperwork reviewed and approved within a half hour, paving the way for the state to send him a card certifying him as a ``qualifying patient.''

That allows him -- and anyone else who gets a card -- to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

For the moment, though, none of the patients or the people who are certified as their caregivers will be buying anything, at least not legally. That's because the state is still going through the process of licensing the 125 dispensaries that will be allowed under Arizona law to sell the drug.

That triggers a provision in the 2010 voter-approved law which says anyone who lives at least 25 miles from a dispensary is entitled to grow their own medication. And with no clinics now and none anticipated for months, that means everyone.

In the first nine hours after the web site went ``live,'' Humble said 110 people submitted applications. But only about two thirds of those ended up with health officials putting a card in an envelope.

The rest? Humble said one of the biggest problems involved the electronic photographs which are required so they can become part of the ID card.

``If it wasn't exactly 2 inches by 2 inches, the computer was rejecting it,'' he said. Humble said the technical support team worked that out during the day.

But he said there also were some problems with the pictures that some would-be marijuana users submitted. Humble said they simply found a photo of themselves on their computer and decided that would suffice.

It did not.

``It was a picture of them on their Harley next to a tree in the shade and it wasn't a clear picture,'' he said.

Humble said he actually expected more than 65 people to submit applications in the first hours, as the law allowed marijuana patients to go to their doctors to get the certification ahead of time.

``I thought we'd be into the couple of hundred range,'' he said. But Humble said that with the application process available online on a 24/7 basis, there may be people figuring they'd wait until the evening.

``A lot of folks know they don't have to apply during business hours,'' he said.

Humble also said the first-day figures don't provide him any clue of how many people will qualify to buy, possess and use marijuana.

The law approved by voters spells out that only those diagnosed by a doctor with certain medical conditions can get the required state certification. These include diseases like glaucoma and AIDS as well as chronic or debilitating conditions that lead to severe and chronic pain.

On top of that, the Health Department imposed various restrictions which Humble said are designed to keep physicians from setting up shop as ``certification mills'' to provide cards for those who want the drug strictly for recreational purposes.

Humble said he anticipates the number of certified users a year from now could be as few as 20,000 -- or as many as 100,000.

He said, though, the first-day statistics suggest to him that the system is working as he had hoped, with marijuana being recommended for medical purposes only.

Humble acknowledged, though, that more than half of the medical conditions reported fell into that chronic pain category, a classification he conceded could be abused. But he said that, absent more, there is no reason to believe that the doctors who made the certifications were acting improperly.

In fact, he pointed out that nearly half of all the applications came from people at least 40 years old, with 22 percent from those 51 and older.

He said states where the program has become largely recreational have the dominant group as men in their 20s and early 30s, ``not because men in those age ranges can't have medical conditions ... but by in large, men in their 20s and 30s are pretty darn healthy.''

It did turn out, at least for the first day, four out of five Arizona applicants were male.

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