PHOENIX – Arizona’s top health official refused Wednesday to accept an application from prospective operators of a medical marijuana dispensary, setting the stage for a possible legal challenge to push for full implementation of a voter-approved law.
Department of Health Services Director Will Humble met with members of a group that wants to establish a dispensary in Scottsdale, but he politely declined to accept a binder with their application papers. The monthlong application period for dispensaries was to have begun Wednesday under rules previously adopted by the department.
As reporters and camera operators watched in a conference room in the department’s headquarters, Humble presented the group of prospective applicants with a form letter acknowledging their attempt and explaining his refusal.
Humble said at least for now he won’t accept the application because of uncertainty about the legality of Arizona’s medical marijuana law. He cited a recent letter from the U.S. attorney for Arizona and the state’s lawsuit filed Friday against the U.S. Department of Justice that asks a federal judge to rule on whether the Arizona law can be implemented in the face of federal law under which marijuana remains illegal.
“Ultimately, we’re going to have to answer this question at some point, and it’s probably better to answer it up front before folks invest tens to maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars in dispensaries and cultivation facilities,” Humble said.
Humble said he made the decision to not accept dispensary applications. He cited legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office and consultations with Gov. Jan Brewer’s office but declined to specify any direction he received from Brewer.
The state is thwarting the will of the voters “and the patients are going to suffer because of this,” said Ryan Hurley, an attorney for the would-be applicants.
Hurley said they’ll review options that include first pursuing an administrative appeal or bypassing that step and starting a challenge with a lawsuit to compel state action.
While the state isn’t implementing the law’s dispensary provisions, the state continues to accept and process applications by patients and caregivers. Most of the 3,700 patient applications processed as May 24 authorize those patients to grow up to 12 plants of marijuana for their own use, and the dozens of registered caregivers also can grow marijuana for their patients.
But that still leaves patients without access to dispensaries to obtain marijuana.
“The voters of Arizona have spoken. The patients are in need. The least we could do is submit our application,” said Dr. Richard Strand, a diagnostic radiologist who is among four men, including two other physicians, who sought to file the application Wednesday.
Arizona’s law allows for only 125 dispensaries statewide, compared with more than 1,000 in California at the peak of that state’s program and more than 800 pot shops in Colorado.