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Ken Sobel

Ken Sobel

PHOENIX -- If some Arizona nurses get their way, medical marijuana will become available as early as next year to treat everything from arthritis and autism to Tourette's syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

Members of the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association are petitioning the Department of Health Services to add those conditions and four more to the list of what qualifies people to use the drug. The voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act requires the agency to consider the requests.

To date, all other efforts have failed -- with one notable exception for post traumatic stress syndrome. And that approval came only after the petition was denied and the case wound up in court.

What may make the outcome this time around different is that the nurses group has apparently figured out exactly what the law requires. Most significant, a medical condition can be added only if there are peer-reviewed studies that have been published in medical journals.

In each of the eight new petitions submitted, attorney Ken Sobel who represents the nurses has provided such references. But it remains to be seen whether these studies prove acceptable to Cara Christ, who took over as state health chief earlier this year.

Sobel acknowledged these are not the same kind of studies the Food and Drug Administration requires before approving new drugs. Those involve not just large numbers of people but that they are double-blind studies, meaning neither the researcher nor the patient knows who is getting the real drug and who is getting a placebo.

But he insisted that doesn't matter -- at least as far as Arizona law.

"The first prong is that we have articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that show that people suffering those conditions have a benefit from cannabis,'' Sobel said. "Requiring an FDA-like standard ... was never intended under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.''

He insists that "plant medicines'' are not subject to the same standards. Beyond that, Sobel said federal officials have refused to approve full-blown research projects on the benefits of marijuana, making such studies unavailable.

Christ would not comment about the petitions -- or what she intends to demand as proof.

An aide to Christ said she will contract with the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona to review all available studies to determine if there is sufficient evidence to suggest that marijuana is helpful in treating the ailment itself, or at least the symptoms. That also will include taking a closer look at the studies Sobel cited to determine if they're scientifically significant.

The petitions have gotten the attention of Maricopa County Bill Montgomery, who opposed the 2010 measure.

Montgomery said his focus remains on killing a proposed 2016 ballot measure to allow the recreational use of marijuana.

"But I can say 'I told you so,' '' he said.

"Back in 2010 there was more than one discussion that the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act system could become a de facto recreational system,'' he said, based not only on the ability to get the drug for chronic pain but the ability to add more conditions later.

"Maybe we'll also see presbyopia added, too?'' he quipped, a reference to being farsighted.

Under the rules, Christ has until the end of October to determine if there's enough evidence to even schedule a legally required public hearing.

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