Claims marijuana could be sold on mobile "cannabis caravans," pot grown in expansive cooperatives and baked in brownies for nursing home residents, are driving the debate over a proposition to decriminalize marijuana for medical use on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Proposition 203 - the Medical Marijuana Act, identifying illnesses that would qualify patients to use marijuana - was placed on the ballot by citizen initiative, and follows 14 other states that already have legalized marijuana for medical use.
Proponents say Arizona's measure has more regulation than those in other states.
"It is a very detailed and well-regulated piece of legislation," said Andrew Myers, of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project. "Prop. 203 is entirely unique. We do an excellent job of limiting the medical marijuana, and restricting who can sell it."
Reports of crime, including violence and money laundering, related to legalized marijuana in other states are fueling some of the public opposition to the Arizona measure.
Critics say the initiative is merely a way to allow recreational use of the drug. Although some warn of "cannabis caravans" driving through neighborhoods - zoning restrictions the city and county are working on would preclude that from happening - and the law itself prohibits sales in the vicinity of schools.
While Prop. 203 is specific about what kind of illnesses would qualify a patient to use medical marijuana, opponents say the category of people suffering from "chronic pain" opens the gates for abuse.
"This is not about medicine. It is a backdoor route to legalization," said Carolyn Short, chairperson of the Keep AZ Drug Free anti-203 campaign. "This gives marijuana users unprecedented protections. … It is a disaster for employers, which is why the Arizona Chamber of Commerce is supporting our efforts"
Under Prop. 203, employers would not be allowed to discriminate in hiring, terminating or imposing any other condition of employment against registered (medical marijuana) cardholders, even if the cardholder has a positive drug test for marijuana.
It does not allow workers to be impaired on the job, however, the Pima County Attorney's Office says.
Supporters say marijuana reduces pain for people suffering from debilitating illness and does not have the harsh side effects of narcotics. It will save patients who choose to seek such relief from having to deal with illegal sellers by making it available at about 120 regulated, non-profit dispensaries statewide. Or if the cardholders live more than 25 miles from a dispensary, they can grow their own or designate a caregiver to do it for them.
Rather than a prescription, to obtain marijuana anyone over the age of 18 with one of the qualifying conditions must instead receive a written "certification" from a doctor, naturopath or homeopath qualifying them for a card from the Arizona Department of Health Services that lets them legally buy 2.5 ounces of marijuana every 14 days.
ADHS would regulate the marijuana.
A qualifying patient is someone who has cancer; glaucoma; HIV/AIDS; Hepatitis C; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Crohn's disease; and agitation of Alzheimer's disease.
Patients with any chronic condition that produces cachexia or wasting; severe and chronic pain; severe nausea; seizures; severe, persistent muscle spasms would also qualify.
An analysis by the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates about 66,000 Arizonans will be registered as marijuana cardholders by 2013.
If the measure passes, state health officials expect to start issuing cards in March, after they create an application and certification system, said state Health Director Will Humble.
Humble said state health officials are also working on getting administrative rules in place to clarify provisions in the initiative, such as whether nursing-home residents would be allowed to smoke marijuana since their facilities are nonsmoking. Humble has suggested they could bake it into brownies.
But Humble predicts nursing- home residents aren't going to be the ones asking for medical marijuana. Based on data from other states, it will be men in their 20s through 40s claiming chronic pain, he said.
While Humble said he's committed to implementing 203 if it passes, he's gone on record as an opponent.
"I wish they would have kept the qualifying conditions more narrow," he said. "Those two words - chronic pain - honestly, if they pulled those two words out I probably would not have said anything. But those words open it up to anybody who is a recreational user, to protect themselves from drug tests at work or to stay out of trouble with the law."
Humble also noted marijuana hasn't been through the same clinical trials for its safety and efficacy that other medication goes through.
Tucson resident and medical marijuana user Lily Rose Krugly said she could not tolerate the narcotics she was prescribed while fighting breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and underwent radiation therapy.
"With the narcotics you throw up, you are depressed - it's a pharmaceutical dance I can't do," she said.
Tom Maza a 48-year-old Tucson who is HIV positive and says he has been living with AIDS for more than a decade, began using marijuana to help with the effects of peripheral neuropathy - an often painful condition caused by damage to the nerves. Maza said his condition is a side effect of the aggressive drug therapy he's on.
"The benefit for me is that legalizing medical marijuana would give me safe access - I wouldn't have to risk my freedom, my home," he said. "The criminals are all against this. It's taking away their profits."
Arizona voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and again in 1998 but it was blocked from taking effect in part because it called for doctors to write a "prescription" for marijuana, which is prohibited under federal law. A measure that would have decriminalized the possession of two ounces or less of marijuana was defeated by voters in 2002.
"This takes a piece of the market away from the drug cartels and gives patients a safe, legal alternative. There is abuse in any system when you are talking about controlled substances," Myers said. "The good news with marijuana is that you can't overdose on it. It's not physiologically addictive like painkillers."
On StarNet: Find more profiles of 2010 ballot propositions at azstarnet.com/election
About Proposition 203, Medical Marijuana
Would legalize the use of marijuana for patients with specific medical conditions. To be sold through regulated, non-profit dispensaries.
• Yes on 203: stoparrestingpatients.org
• No on 203: keepazdrugfree.com
Contact Stephanie Innes at SInnes@azstarnt.com or 573-4134