State Representative Jay Lawrence Withdraws Bill That Could Have Ended Medical Marijuana Program

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UPDATE: State Representative Jay Lawrence (R-Fountain Hills) has withdrawn his bill that could have destroyed Arizona's medical-marijuana program.

Lawrence's bill, HCR 2019, would have stripped naturopaths and homeopaths of the right to recommend medical marijuana, even though those doctors write nearly 90 percent of the recommendations. His plan also called for patients to renew their cards every six months instead of every year, paying double the annual fees.

"We received so many calls," he tells New Times. "I had heard anecdotally that [the cards] are handed out wildly. I learned from the callers that there is a lot more care taken by naturopaths than I had originally been told."

Hundreds of people called his office, he says, and he spoke to 30 or 40 of them. He also spoke to dispensary operators.

"I became more sympathetic when I learned it's not just a gimme," he says. Most patients "are not getting a pass. "[Naturopaths and homeopaths] are legitimately getting medical records."

Lawrence says he's still concerned about minors given marijuana by patients. Told that the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act already prohibits that, he says he'd like to see that part "enforced."

"I'm glad that this is over now, as you might imagine," he adds.

New Times left a message with J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Arizona Dispensaries Association, to find out if Wednesday's planned protest at the State Capitol had been cancelled, since it's apparently no longer needed.

UPDATE #2 — Holyoak says the rally at the State Capitol mentioned below is still going to take place. While he expects fewer participants now that the threat from Lawrence's bill has passed, many cannabis activists are still likely to show up at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

"We need to be out there making a statement saying it's not OK to attack patients in this state," he says.

The original story published this morning follows:

A lawmaker's attempt to destroy Arizona's successful medical-marijuana program will be met with stiff resistance, including a planned protest Wednesday at the Arizona Capitol.

A group of about 175 industry professionals, including owners of some of the state's 87 dispensaries, met on Thursday night and agreed to encourage patients to attend the rally, says J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Arizona Dispensaries Association and the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which plans to put a legalization measure on the ballot this November.

Arizona currently has about 90,000 patients qualified to use and possess marijuana for medical reasons, including chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn's disease, cancer, and AIDS, under the voter-approved 2010 law. About 75 percent of the patients are 31 or older and about two-thirds are men, according to the Arizona Department of Health Service's 2015 annual report. As New Times reported last week, more than 19 tons of cannabis products were purchased from state dispensaries in 2015 by patients, bringing the stores about $215 million in revenue and enriching the state treasury by $22 million, including from sales tax and fees collected from dispensaries and patients.

The bill proposed by state Representative Jay Lawrence (R-Fountain Hills) would all but end the program, if approved.

House Concurrent Resolution 2019 would prohibit naturopathic and homeopathic doctors from writing marijuana recommendations. Such doctors now write nearly 90 percent of the recommendations because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency can revoke the prescription-writing ability of MDs who participate in the medical-marijuana program. 

Lawrence's bill is a direct attack on patients because it would force them to pony up the expense for a medical card, typically $300 including fees to the state and doctor, every six months rather than once a year.

The bill also would ban selling medical marijuana to unqualified minors, even though the 2010 Medical Marijuana Act already makes such sales a felony.

Lawrence, a conservative talk-show host turned politician, introduced the bill as a resolution that must be approved by state voters to avoid the three-quarters legislative majority needed to make changes to a voter-approved law. The super-majority is required by the 1998 Voter Protection Act, which voters put in place after conservative lawmakers tried to gut a 1996 medical-marijuana law. Even if the Legislature passes a bill like Lawrence's directly, it still would run afoul of the the VPA, which requires that changes to voter-approved laws must advance the purposes of the laws.

However, by pushing the bill as a resolution, the Legislature could refer it to voters with a simple majority. Voters, unlike the Legislature, can make changes to any law without a super-majority vote.

Lawrence told the Arizona Republic last week that he considers medical marijuana a "threat to society" and to Arizona's youth.

Yet federal surveys show that teen use of marijuana In Arizona has decreased slightly since the first dispensaries opened in 2013.

Indeed, as reported in November, pot-prohibitionists lack evidence that marijuana causes much harm to anyone.

"I find marijuana is a threat and its use by young people is a threat — they are threats because they are stoned," Lawrence told the paper. "They are threats because they are driving, they are threats because at their business ... they might handle machinery and be stoned."

Even if the bill makes it to the November ballot, Holyoak says, polls show that Arizona's Medical Marijuana Act is supported by many more voters now than when it narrowly passed in 2010.

"[But] I'm not willing to take a chance," Holyoak says. "[The bill is] a potential threat."

Each dispensary typically collects some patient contact information. Holyoak says dispensaries will blitz the patients with e-mails in the next few days to alert them about the rally, planned for 10 a.m. on Wednesday at the Capitol lawn.

Organized opposition to Lawrence's bill has already begun. Patients overwhelmed several lawmakers' e-mail accounts and phones this week. But Holyoak says more action is needed to ensure the survival of the medical program.

"The state Legislature is trying to limit freedom, and they're telling naturopaths they're not real doctors," he says. "A massive backlash is on its way."

Patients also are taking to social media to get the word out.

"You're fighting a losing battle, Jay Lawrence," Kevin Gassman of Phoenix wrote on Lawrence's Facebook page. "Please reconsider your stance. Your position is outdated and unfounded. You're basing this on your personal judgement and pressure from your peers who are also ill-informed."

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