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In 2010, Arizona passed Proposition 203, that declared that state law would distinguish between “the medical and non-medical uses of marijuana” and “established as public policy” that patients suffering from certain medical conditions would not face state criminal prosecution for treating their condition with the medicines of the marijuana plant. Proposition 203 became law as the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA).

The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) then developed Arizona’s first ever medical marijuana program. ADHS issued medical cards to qualified patients who had received a recommendation from a doctor that the use of marijuana would be beneficial in treating their debilitating conditions and illnesses. The medical card authorizes patients to possess and consume marijuana. ADHS also created a statewide process for dispensing marijuana to patients using state licensed dispensaries in each county.

ADHS recognized the need for patients to be able to consume marijuana in a variety of ways depending upon their debilitating condition or illness. This included licensing dispensaries to create edible and other plant forms of marijuana. ADHS recognized many patients, with the most serious conditions, would not want to smoke the marijuana. ADHS also recognized that many patients, under the age of 18, should not smoke marijuana.

From 2010 until 2018 Arizona’s medical marijuana program authorized the possession and use of many non-smoking forms of marijuana. In 2018 an appeals court in Phoenix considered a case from Yavapai County where a qualified patient, Rodney Jones, was charged with possessing .05 grams of “hashish”. Mr. Jones was convicted of possessing a “narcotic” drug and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison despite having lawfully purchased the hashish from a dispensary. The appeals court upheld Jones’ conviction and ruled that medical marijuana patients can only smoke or eat marijuana.

While the decision was welcomed by the anti-marijuana forces in the state, it was met with disbelief and opposition by ADHS and many health professionals who understand the medicinal benefits of marijuana.

Jones appealed the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court and on March 19, 2019 the Court heard arguments from lawyers for both sides. A decision is expected within the next month. Anti-marijuana forces in some counties have seized the opportunity and have begun arresting and jailing patients for the possession of any form of marijuana other than in plant form. Coconino, Yavapai and Maricopa Counties have been arresting patients who possess any non-plant form of marijuana despite it having been purchased legally from a dispensary.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery admitted this week his office was wrong to arrest patients before the Supreme Court decides the issue. He further announced that he will take no further action against patients until the final decision is made. Yavapai County has also stopped arresting patients.

The crack down on patients in Coconino County occurred without providing the patients with any advanced notice and continues to date. Now, while patients can lawfully purchase non-plant forms of marijuana in this county, they can be arrested for possessing their non-plant form of medicine. This anti-patient policy is especially alarming given that Coconino County’s voters voted overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana in 2010.

The recent anti-patient actions of Coconino County are wrong and ignore the express intent of the voters. The positions taken by our County and City Attorneys, like the positions of the anti-vaccine and anti-climate change forces, are contrary to the findings of most scientists who have studied these issues. Finally, the actions of our police and prosecutors violate the federal and state constitutional rights of Arizona’s patients. This violation of rights will likely lead the County and City to be sued for violating patients’ civil rights.

If Coconino County officials won’t listen to the voters, they should at least stop their assault on our patients until this issue has been decided by Arizona’s highest court.

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Lee Phillips is an attorney certified by the State Bar of Arizona as a criminal law specialist.

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