Everyone knows the saying. More money, more problems. And in Arizona, the problem is figuring out what to do with the millions of dollars the state’s health department has garnered through its medical cannabis program. Like flies to honey, multiple Republican legislators are swarming around the roughly $13.7 million surplus in hopes of diverting it toward drug awareness campaigns. But what matters is where that money comes from. The folks responsible for stuffing state coffers are fighting back as one lawmaker asks medical marijuana users to pay for anti-drug program.
Arizona Generating Serious Cash Surplus From Medical Cannabis Fees
Demonstrating the financial benefits of legalized cannabis is one of the most powerful ways to win lawmakers and voters over to the pro-cannabis side of the fence. Taxes from medical and recreational marijuana sales have provided significant flows of cash for strained state budgets. Revenue from the legal cannabis industry has funded schools and education, drug treatment programs, law enforcement, and public health programming.
In Arizona, where recreational use is illegal, the state has collected a significant amount of revenue from taxes and fees. Arizona voters approved medical marijuana in 2010. But access to the state’s medical cannabis program came at a cost. Not only patients but caregivers, dispensaries and growers all had to pay into the pot.
The surplus the state is trying to figure out how to spend comes directly from those fees. Specifically, from the $150 annual fee patients registered with the program have to pay the Arizona Department of Health.
If that number seems a bit high, that’s because it is. Lawmakers set the fee at $150 dollars out of concern that the program would be too small to cover its costs.
In other words, the state health department underestimated how many people would qualify for and actually enroll in the state’s medical marijuana program.
As a result, Arizona pulled in just under $25 million in fees in 2017, according to Tuscon.com. The program’s expenses for that same year were just $11.2 million.
And while patients registered for their program have filed suit to have their fees reduced, one lawmaker asks medical marijuana users to pay for anti-drug program instead.
Lawmaker Asks Medical Marijuana Users To Pay For Anti-Drug Program
Arizona HB 2066 proposes to use the health department’s budget surplus for drug abuse education, awareness and drug prevention messages. The bill is the brainchild of Republican house representative Vince Leach.
Rep. Leach says Arizona isn’t doing enough to make sure people, especially youth, don’t “take up” marijuana.
“We’re obviously not doing a good enough job of educating people about the harmful effects of drugs, whether they be alcohol, whether they be medical marijuana, whether they be opioids,” Leach said.
One could rightfully argue that some pretty significant differences exist between the three substances. The most obvious being that marijuana isn’t the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, as opioids are.
Nevertheless, Rep. Leach is setting his sights primarily on educating people about the harmful effects of marijuana on children.
It’s the candy-like look and taste of some cannabis edibles that most concerns Rep. Leach, which is why he has also introduced HB 2064. That bill would prevent anyone from possessing or producing marijuana packaged in “a manner that is attractive to minors.”
Both of Rep. Leach’s proposals would take a significant bite out of the health department surplus.
And independently of the two house bills, Republican state senator David Farnsworth wants to send $5 million worth of health department resources to Arizona law enforcement agencies. SB 1061 would earmark the funds for “crimes related to drug trafficking and distribution.”
Patients Fight For Fewer Fees As Lawmaker Asks Medical Marijuana Users To Pay For Anti-Drug Program
Since the rollout of Arizona’s medical marijuana program, patients have been fighting to reduce their fees. They had been making some progress under then-Health Director Will Humble.
But the new Health Director, Cara Christ, isn’t interested in reducing fees. And in response, two medical cannabis patients in Arizona have filed suit to force her to reduce the fees. Their attorney, Sean Berberian, said it isn’t fair to require patients to pay more than is necessary.
If the patients prevail, the proposed spending bills would likely go nowhere. The surplus to fund them would dry up. But if the state house or senate pass any of the bills, the lawsuit would likely fail.
When asked how he felt about patients concerns, Rep. Leach did not appear to take them very seriously.
Rather, Rep. Leach insinuated that some patients’ medical marijuana recommendations weren’t legitimate. He also suggested that prescribing doctors were skirting program requirements.
But since he has no power to overturn the medical marijuana law, Rep. Leach thinks those who use the program should pay to try to prevent others from using cannabis.
That leaves patients and lawmakers in a deadlock. But so far, the lawmakers are all talk. No date has been set to begin hearings on any of the three proposed measures.