Qualified patients probably will be buying legal marijuana in dispensaries by summer or fall of 2011, a state health official said today.
Those who grow their own under Arizona's voter-approved Proposition 203, however, could be getting high much sooner.
In a long news conference this afternoon featuring Will Humble, director of the state's Department of Health Services, it was clear that many questions will remain unanswered -- for a while, anyway -- about the new law.
Among the interesting points raised today: Patients could begin receiving approval to use medical marijuana before many dispensaries open to sell the product. Proposition 203 allows qualified patients to grow their own marijuana if no dispensary exists within 25 miles of their home. Therefore, the law appears to allow the patients to begin growing pot the minute they're approved, as long as no dispensary has yet to open nearby.
A "conundrum" is how Humble characterized that situation.
Another way to look at it: It's not too late to ask Santa for a grow light.
Those without a green thumb will have to wait to buy legal weed. But not for that long.
According to Humble's timeline:
* The medical marijuana measure's win -- as with other victorious campaigns in the November 2 election -- will be made official in the November 29 canvass of election results.
* By April 1, DHS plans to be finished creating regulations for the new industry, and will begin accepting applications for dispensaries, "caregivers," and patients.
* Proposition 203 states that DHS must approve applications within 90 days.
* Once an application for a dispensary is approved, the dispensary operators can then plant marijuana seeds legally under the state law.
* Patients can buy that marijuana at the dispensary when it's ready for consumption.
Marijuana grown indoors takes three or four months to go from seeds to harvest, (as seen in a timelapsed YouTube video), so even if health services takes a full 90 days to approve its first dispensary application, the first, fully stocked dispensary would probably open no later than October, or maybe November.
Humble expects a dispensary system running by the summer or fall of 2011. Between now and the first of April, the DHS under Humble's leadership will create reasonable regulations for the industry, as Proposition 203 allows. A timeline published by DHS today shows that several public hearings will be held on the proposed rules before they're set.
Humble also tells us he'll be in consultation with the state Attorney General's office every step of the way to make sure his proposed rules are legal.
Under the 1998 Voter Protection Act, voter-approved propositions cannot be altered without a 3/4 majority vote by the State Legislature. That means Humble, who let it be known he's not pleased with Proposition 203, can't use his rule-making ability to restrict the essential parts of the law.
For instance, he proposed at the news conference that he's considering a rule that would place a cap on the number of patients receiving recommendations by a single doctor. In a follow-up question by New Times, he admitted that nothing in Proposition 203 seemed to allow such a cap.
However, the law does allow Humble to express his opinion in other ways. Humble said he's concerned with the potential for abuse by people who spend "five minutes" with a doctor to obtain a recommendation for marijuana. He proposes more clearly defining the scope of a "physician-patient relationship" in an attempt to eliminate quickie diagnoses.
As New Times outlined in an article last month, though, the criteria for obtaining a medical marijuana card under Proposition 203 is rather loose.
For sure, people with cancer, glaucoma and other serious ailments will qualify. But so will people with "chronic and severe pain." Naturopathic and homeopathic doctors, as well as mainstream physicians, can make the recommendations. Asked if dispensaries could have a physician on staff who makes recommendations, Humble noted that the law doesn't prohibit such an arrangement.
One reporter asked Humble if menstrual cramps could be a qualifying condition. Humble spent a few minutes reiterating his ideas to curb general use of marijuana for such problems, but it seemed obvious the answer to her question was, indeed, "yes."
Another difficult question for Humble was where cardholders could smoke marijuana legally. Proposition 203 states that cardholders cannot smoke pot "in public." But it doesn't specify what that means.
Humble said his initial thoughts are to create rules similar to those restricting tobacco use under the Smoke-Free Arizona Act. When reporters pointed out that means marijuana could be used in enclosed vehicles and parks, Humble said he still had time to consider his options.
Other rules to be considered, then created, in the coming weeks include how the DHS will pick applicants for dispensaries. Humble said he expects about 100,000 patients a year to apply for cards. Yet the law limits the number of dispensaries to only about 120, statewide. This could mean an epic competition for the limited number of retail businesses, with the winners all but guaranteed a highly lucrative operation.
When the DHS begins accepting dispensary applications in early April, it could -- and probably will -- be deluged by entrepreneurs. Although the businesses will be designated as not-for-profit, that doesn't mean they won't be cash-cows for their owners. Humble isn't yet sure how the DHS will choose among qualified applicants. The process could involve a random element, such as a lottery, he said. He'll also be looking at the quality of the applications and likely judging them on their business plans and other criteria.
Some of the rules will protect cardholders. The DHS will create a computer registry -- which won't be made public, of course -- that will tie into law enforcement computers. That way, if a cop pulls you over with your bag of weed, he can verify quickly that you are a qualified patient and should not be arrested.
Another of Humble's goals: Tracking the marijuana grown, sold in dispensaries, and then consumed. One result will likely be that a tracking system will alert authorities to patients trying to buy more than their allotted two-and-a-half ounces of pot every two weeks.
The DHS will impose fees to pay for the system it sets up; the cost will be decided later.
We'll continue to cover the many questions surrounding Proposition 203 in the coming days, so don't be shy about asking. If we don't know the answer, we'll get it for you.