A major change is coming for the more than 200,000 medical marijuana cardholders in Arizona next month: The cards are going digital.
Say goodbye to receiving your card in the mail. Starting December 1, all new medical marijuana cards issued by the Arizona Department of Health Services will be emailed as PDF files.
Medical marijuana patients who already have physical cards will receive supplemental digital versions via email, but they’ll be able to keep using their physical cards until they expire, at which point they’ll have to renew online.
The change is the result of a law passed in June that required DHS to begin providing digital, instead of physical, medical cards. That law, SB 1494, also required Arizona to implement marijuana testing and extended the period of time that cards remain valid to two years instead of one.
DHS Assistant Director Colby Bower said that the agency currently spends some $1.5 million a year on ink and supplies to print 1,200 new medical cards a day, and is eager to adopt a more modern system.
“At that kind of volume, that program was quickly evolving into a mail-and-print-shop operation,” Bower said. “It just becomes an operational challenge. This isn’t sustainable anymore.”
Bower said ADHS has been discussing a possible change for the last few years. As the patient community has consistently grown at a rate of around 30 percent each year, the workload for the agency has mounted.
He says the new digital cards will be more secure, avoiding human errors that inevitably come with mailing to physical addresses. He also says they’ll arrive more quickly than cards in the mail.
But some in Arizona’s burgeoning patient community have raised concerns about whether the roll-out of new digital cards will lead to obstacles preventing them from obtaining the medicine on which they rely.
Others worry about being apprehended with marijuana in their possession at a time when they don’t have access to a phone, or in a place where internet service is spotty.
Phoenix New Times sat down with Bower on November 20. Read his responses to some of the top patient questions and concerns:
What if I’m not tech-savvy?
Critics of the switch to all-digital cards in Arizona have pointed out that nearly a fourth of the state’s medical marijuana cardholders, around 50,000 patients, are over the age of 60. Some of those older patients may not know how to access a PDF card online. And some patients may not use smartphones at all.
Bower responded that every medical marijuana patient in the state in the last eight years has been required to apply for the card through email, so they had to have some level of digital fluency.
But he said patients who aren’t particularly tech-savvy or want extra protection can still print out their card so they’ve “got it at all times.”
If you don’t know how to download and print a PDF or don’t have a printer, some dispensaries are providing extra help. Downtown Dispensary in Tucson, for example, plans to install a printing station in its lobby, KOLD News 13 of Tucson reported.
Bower said he thinks most patients will be able to figure out the new system, and those who aren’t digital natives will adapt.
"That 60-year-old, remember, they were in their 40s when the internet was hitting their workspace," Bower said. "This isn’t a new thing. We think that the overall benefit to the 99.9 percent far outweighs somebody not being able to navigate their email inbox."
What if I get pulled over with marijuana in my car and can’t access my card online?
Tom Dean, a lawyer specializing in cannabis-related cases in Arizona, pointed out that patients who use only digital cards could be vulnerable to arrest if they get pulled over with a low battery or poor internet service.
People forget their physical cards too — but Dean says he thinks the digital system could exacerbate the problem.
“The concern that I have is what happens when the patient doesn't have their registration number memorized and doesn't have internet access on their phone when they're stopped,” he told New Times in an email.
For now, according to Bower, the best solution is to print out a copy of the digital card and keep it in your glove box.
“How law enforcement is handling that, I don’t know,” he said. “But the system is clearly navigating those unique situations where the patient is a legitimate patient but doesn’t have their card. We would always recommend people print them out.”
How will my personal data be protected?
With thousands of patients’ card information being sent via email, how can patients be sure that their data will stay private?
“We’re required by law to not release that information to the public,” Bower said.
He said the agency takes privacy concerns seriously, and that it already has disseminated information to patients via email without issue. The agency also uses the Salesforce platform, which other state agencies use, to manage licensing.
A team of 18 developers is staffed to address glitches in case any arise, Bower said.
A PDF? Really?
As rudimentary as PDF cards might seem, Bower said they are just “phase one” in a larger plan to create a more intricate digital system for medical marijuana patients.
“This is a non-elegant solution to meet the legislative deadline,” he said.
Bower said the agency hopes eventually to create an online patient portal that allows patients to not only access their card, but also to track their application status, check how much of their allotment they’ve used (patients can buy up to 2.5 ounces every two weeks), and use online chat features.
While he didn’t promise any timeline for those features, he said some enhancements to the program can be expected in spring 2020.
Why not offer both online and printed versions of the cards, as other states have done?
The main reason is money. By eliminating the cost of printing supplies, the agency can channel that money into developing the new digital cards and an eventual patient portal.
“We don’t want to keep a print shop open,” said Bower. “We want to move it into a modern system. We don’t think this is a real leap here.”
If you’re a medical marijuana patient and you’re not sure if your email address is up to date, you can update it at this link to ensure you’ll receive your digital card on December 1.
Below are samples of the new digital cards by DHS
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.