Is Politics Killing Arizona Bill That Would Test Marijuana, Lower Card Fee?

Arizona Senator Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City
Arizona Senator Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City Arizona Legislature
(UPDATE: A week later, Borrelli pledged to strip the bill of the provision lowering card fees, and did. The bill held on until July, when it failed to gain enough votes in the House.)

Cannabis advocates and lawmakers have high hopes for a bill requiring for the first time that Arizona medical marijuana be tested for contaminants.

But the bill's creator said on Tuesday he's worried the hard work he and others have put into it will "unravel."

"I don't know what's going to happen to it, " said Demitri Downing, executive director of the Marijuana Trade Industry Association of Arizona (MITA). "Politics took over and it's probably going to die a quiet death."

Downing's comments came after three of the bill's Republican co-sponsors pulled their support last week in a State Senate Government Committee hearing, expressing concern about a potentially massive expansion in patients because of a provision to lower the patient registration card fee.

"I am embarrassed to confess to you today, that I signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill not understanding that it had that (decrease) of fee in it," said Senator David Farnsworth, a Republican from Mesa, during the voting portion of the hearing. He then voted against the bill, as did Republican senators Gail Griffin, from Hereford, and John Kavanagh, from Fountain Hills, who are also named co-sponsors.

The aptly named Senate Bill 1420 was introduced on January 29 by Senator Sonny Borrelli, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors consisting of nearly the entire Legislature, including 27 of 30 senators and 50 of 60 representatives.

The bill would mandate a new testing program, lower the patient card fee from $150 to $50 (with $25 annual renewals), allow dispensary agents to work at multiple locations with no extra fees, and require childproof packaging for products.

The legislation also declares that medical cannabis is an "agricultural commodity" and aims to create a cannabis testing program under the oversight of the state Department of Agriculture. Private labs would obtain certificates to test cannabis products from the state agricultural laboratory, then test medical cannabis for mold, heavy metals, pesticides, or other things that shouldn't be in medicine. They'd share the results with the lab, dispensaries, and the state Department of Health Services.

State workers would conduct inspections of dispensaries and the cultivation operations of registered caregivers, and could even conduct surprise inspections on private property without the need to notify anyone. The state had 944 registered caregivers as of December 2017 who can legally grow — depending on their location — or purchase cannabis for up to five patients.

(As one critic of that measure pointed out to Phoenix New Times, that could mean serious intrusions into the private homes of caregivers.)

The testing program would cost the state about $2 million a year. That part would be financed by the state's ever-growing medical marijuana fund, now standing at $41 million. After the state DHS developed rules for testing medical marijuana, the program would also mandate additional costs for the dispensaries, which would likely pass those costs on to consumers.

Little problem, though: The 2010 medical-marijuana law approved by Arizona voters doesn't call for any kind of testing. And changing the law is difficult, given the constraints of the 1998 Voter Protection Act.

The Legislature can't change a voter-ratified law without a three-fourths majority under the act, and even then, the change must further the law's purpose.

Any bill trying to tamper with the medical-marijuana law is in trouble unless it has wide support by most of the Legislature. It appeared from SB 1420's roster of co-sponsors that it had that support — until last week's senate Government Committee hearing.

Borrelli, the chair of the seven-member panel, expressed obvious disdain for medical cannabis at the hearing even as he touted his bill. He began the discussion by explaining that the only reason the law passed in 2010 was because voters didn't read the "fine print" of the bill and notice it included no safety standards.

Still, "we want to make sure nobody's going to get even sicker," by using medical marijuana, he said.

Borrelli's proposal immediately ran into trouble with three fellow GOP committee members who had co-signed the bill and ostensibly supported it.

Griffin asked why the bill lowers the cost of a registration card from $150 annually to $50, with the option for $25-a-year renewals. Borrelli, who didn't return a message for this article, replied that the new card fee would be in line with those in other states.

Then Kavanagh explained that according to numbers he'd received from state analysts, nearly all of the roughly $25 million in revenue the medical marijuana program brought DHS last year was from the card fees of the roughly 150,000 patients.

click to enlarge Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk - ARIZONA LEGISLATURE
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk
Arizona Legislature
Cutting the card fee to $25-$50 would mean less than $7.6 million in revenue for DHS, which last year spent more than $11 million running the program, Kavanagh said.

Instead of a surplus adding to the medical marijuana fund each year, the whole program would be suddenly underfunded even as the new inspections added another $2 million expense to the state, he said.

Kavanagh makes an important point. The state senate's fact sheet says "there is no anticipated fiscal impact" from the bill, but in fact it appears the bill could cause the program's expenses to exceed its revenue by several million dollars a year. This wouldn't be a problem right away, though, because the extra money could be covered for a while by the $41 million in the medical marijuana fund.

The real sticking point for Republicans apparently won't be the potential cost of the bill, though — it's the card fee reduction.

Lowering the fee has obvious benefits for patients and advocates of the program. Kevin DeMenna, a lobbyist for the Arizona Dispensaries Association, said the $150 card fee is the biggest obstacle that stops patients who need medical marijuana from obtaining it legally. Several patients spoke in favor of the bill based on the card fee reduction.

But DeMenna may not have done the bill any favors when he pointed out to lawmakers at the hearing that if only they would lower the card fee, an additional 350,000 patients might sign up.

click to enlarge Kevin DeMenna - ARIZONA LEGISLATURE
Kevin DeMenna
Arizona Legislature
Such an explosion in patients, a.k.a. customers, would be awesome for Arizona's 130 or so state-authorized dispensaries.

It's also exactly what cannabis prohibitionists like Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk don't want to see.

Polk, a longtime opponent of cannabis decriminalization who's in her fifth term of office, said she opposed the bill based on the fee proposal's likely "impact" on the youth. She said "every day" she sees kids turn 18 and get their card, which she deemed a "ticket to smoke pot for an entire year.

"I hear from parents all the time coming to me to say what can you do, what can I do, to stop my kid from smoking pot and losing ambition and losing a bright, beautiful future," she said. "If we lower the fees, it just makes it easier for our kids to get cards."

The bill moved forward on a 4-3 vote, but Borrelli was the only Republican on the panel with a yes vote. It's headed next for the senate Rules Committee.

Downing praised the work of Borrelli and other lawmakers for working together on the bill, which evolved over the past year. He said the goal was to find compromises that would "improve" the medical marijuana law in a way that both parties found palatable, making it possible to get a required three-fourths majority vote to make it all happen, Downing said.

Pro-legalization Democrats like Representative Mark Cardenas of Phoenix hashed things out with Republicans including Borrelli and Representative Kevin Payne of Peoria, finally producing the bill in January. Borrelli "went out and got 80 signatures from House and Senate members," Downing said.

Downing's pessimistic following last week's hearing that the bill will stage a comeback, saying that "industry" and "Democrats" won't support it without lowering the card fee because then the bill would be "driving up costs without something in return."

Yet DeMenna told New Times this week that the dispensaries association will maintain support for the bill even if the card-fee provision gets stripped out.

The association will continue to try to get the card cost down, but doesn't want to preclude "other good ideas," he said.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.