The Arizona Court of Appeals has received an appeal by a local attorney that could force the state to reduce its annual medical marijuana card fee. Arizona patients pay $150 annually to maintain their medical marijuana cardholder status. Attorney Sean Berberian says that the fee far exceeds what the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) actually needs to operate the program.
Proposition 203 states that the ADHS isn’t supposed to hold onto the excess proceeds generated by the medical marijuana program, reports Tucson.com. Yet, last fiscal year, Arizona’s medical marijuana program cost $11.2 million to operate, but the state collected $24.9 million in fees from patients, cultivators, dispensaries, and caregivers.
The lawsuit also claims that former governor Jan Brewer and current governor Doug Ducey – both of which are adamantly against medical and recreational marijuana legalization – have directed the ADHS to maintain the high fee so that Arizonans will be dissuaded from getting a medical marijuana card.
Governor Ducey’s office has denied those claims. Patrick Ptak, Ducey’s press aide, said, “There have been no efforts from this office to direct ADHS’s operation of this program.” Ptak says the fee schedule was already in place when governor Ducey took office.
Six months ago, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry rejected a similar suit. While she didn’t deny that the state is collecting more than it needs to operate the program, she says lowering costs was not up to her.
Berberian is hoping that the Court of Appeals will find that her ruling wasn’t the right one.
The current budget year shows $2.8 million in expenses and revenues of $6 million. Health officials admit that there is $38.1 million in the account’s balance, which is triple the amount required to operate the program annually.
Berberian’s clients, listed in the lawsuit as plaintiffs, have a difficult time affording their cards every year. One patient lives on just $1,100 per month and is forced to borrow money for her card or spend less on her medical marijuana. Another is a caregiver, but the caregiver card costs more than the patient card. Caregivers pay $200 just to be able to pick up medical marijuana for a patient.
The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act states that the amount of fees “shall generate revenues sufficient to implement and administer the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.”
Berberian said, “Instead, what the Department of Health Services has done is set a fee structure and refused to reexamine or revisit that fee structure when its’ quite obvious that the fees that they set are far beyond what is sufficient to implement and administer that chapter.”
Will Humble was the health director in 2010 when Prop 203 passed. He is responsible for setting the $150 fee. That figure was based off of start-up costs and assuming that only a low number of patients, about 25,000, would qualify. Humble’s estimate was way off. As of Sept 2017, Arizona has more than 143,000 registered patients.
According to Humble, he was working on a plan to reduce the fee when governor Ducey won the election. Cara Christ, the new health director, hasn’t made a single movement on this issue in her tenure.
Berberian says, “This is part and parcel of the state’s ongoing effort to try to limit Arizonans from getting access to legal medical marijuana. At every turn, the state and our governor has tried to prevent Arizonans from getting access.”
Judge Gentry indicated that the law doesn’t prevent or prohibit the ADHS from taking in more than the program costs to operate. The judge has indicated that Berberian’s suit is a political question that is “beyond the reach of the courts.”
Gentry’s written response was, “The only way the court could determine what fee meets the sufficient requirements of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act and the Constitution would be to take over the administration of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act from the Department of Health Services.”
Gentry also hinted that the lawsuit forces the Court to set policy decisions. These decisions would include items like operating expenses, litigation defense, enforcement actions and staff salaries, which Prop 203 “puts in the purview of the health department.”