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Arizona lawmakers want honest marijuana sales

A marijuana bud at a marijuana dispensary in Denver. Colorado, Oregon and Washington could become the first to legalize marijuana this fall.
Ed Andrieski
A marijuana bud at a marijuana dispensary in Denver.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona lawmakers are moving to ensure that marijuana buyers are getting what they asked for -- and not the things they don't want.
Legislation awaiting a House vote would require the Department of Health Services to contract with an outside laboratory to confirm that what medical and recreational dispensaries are selling matches what they claim. HB 2050 also contains new technical requirements to ensure that the batch being tested is the same as the one being sold.
The measure, approved by the Senate earlier this week on a 25-2 margin, also would waive the biennial $150 fee to get a medical marijuana card for veterans who have been honorably discharged from the service and have been Arizona residents for at least a year.
And it would ensure that there is at least one medical marijuana dispensary in each of the state's 15 counties.
Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said that's what voters said they wanted in 2010 when they first approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. And he said a 2019 law directed the health department to issue new licenses in any county without one.
Yet Gowan said Apache, Cochise, Gila, Graham and Santa Cruz counties still lack a medical marijuana dispensary, "requiring some patients to drive a long distance.''
The heart of the measure, however, is about checking what's in the drugs.
The original 2010 voter-approved law did require testing.
But there was no requirement for the labs being used to actually be certified to ensure they were accurately reporting both potency and contamination. And there were gaps in exactly what those tests were supposed to find.
That was supposed to be fixed by the 2019 law.
It spelled out that products needed to be testing for microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents. There was also to be testing for marijuana potency.
And it also ensured that the labs not have financial or familial relationships with the dispensaries.
Gowan said, though, that the system is not working as lawmakers intended.
He cited various media reports, including one in the Arizona Republic which sent out samples to a commercial laboratory. It found some were contaminated with levels of pesticides more than 20 times the limit the rules permit.
"We decided the legislation needed further clarification and guardrails,'' Gowan said.
Some of that, he said, is bringing testing guidelines into line with those in other states. But the problems, Gowan said are deeper.
"Arizona Department of Health Services does not see any of the medical test results conducted by laboratories,'' he said. "Therefore, if tainted cannabis is in fact being sold, DHS is not being informed by the labs.''
HB 2050 would require labs to send the health department every test results, "both the good and the bad, within five calendar days.''
Then there's the requirement for the health department to issue its own contract to test products found on dispensary shelves.
"This allows DHS to create a 'secret shopper program' to verify that the products being sold to medical patients are in fact tested properly and are in compliance,'' Gowan said.
And he said allowing the health department to accept anonymous complaints also will help protect consumers.
The issue of the five counties is separate.
"HB 2050 ensures that DHS will adhere to the voter-approved language to determine how many dispensary licenses are available and outlines how the department will fill this,'' Gowan said.
Steve Elliott, a spokesman for DHS, said he cannot comment on pending legislation.
Residents in those five counties don't necessarily have to go entirely without.
Gowan said each has at least one dispensary that sells marijuana for recreational use.
"But medical patients have access to higher amounts of THC in their cannabis products,'' a reference to the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. And he said patients also are entitled to purchase larger quantities than are available for recreational use.
And there's another reason that patients may want to patronize medical marijuana dispensaries: Certain taxes that apply to the sale of recreational marijuana are not levied on drugs sold for medical use.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia