Arizona’s medical cannabis program is about to become cheaper and cleaner, courtesy of a new bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey late Friday.

Med cards are now valid for two years. And products will finally be tested.

Under the new rules, medical cannabis cards will be valid for two years instead of one. That will save patients the $150 application fee every other year. Patients will also save on annual doctor visit fees.

Demitri Downing, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association, applauded the move. “$150 does not grow on trees,” he said, “and for patients it’s a lot of money the government does not need.”

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Furthermore, mandatory potency and purity testing will kick in on Nov. 1, 2020.

Arizona Medical Marijuana Law Evolves

Arizona legalized medical cannabis in 2010 with a relatively restrictive program and no lab testing mandate. Since then, other medical and adult use states have required lab testing to assure product quality and cleanliness.

The new Arizona law, SB 1494—signed late Friday with no announcement by Ducey—mostly focuses on quality control in the cannabis supply chain. It calls for independent third-party laboratories to test products before they are sold at dispensaries. Those labs need national or international accreditation as well as certification from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Beginning Nov. 1, 2020, all medical cannabis products on dispensary shelves must be tested for potency and common cannabis contaminants like mold, mildew, fungus, heavy metals like lead, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, artificial hormones called growth regulators, and residual solvents like butane.

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Patients and caregivers can request test scores at the cash register. The new law requires dispensaries to provide the data “immediately on request.”

“While any industry is reluctant to accept new regulation,” Downing commented, “the medical marijuana industry in Arizona recognized that being the only state without testing was not the best status to have, and the industry is concerned about patient safety, unnecessary fees and what is best for Arizona as a whole.”

Keeping Lab and Dispensary Separate

The law aims to prevent conflicts of interest between dispensaries and labs by prohibiting a “direct or indirect familial or financial relationship” between the two business types.

Like other states before them, the state of Arizona faces a number of challenges in creating an effective testing regime. The state must craft certification rules for labs, including proficiency testing, at a time when no federal testing guidelines exist. Each state has crafted differing lab rules—some far stricter and more expensive than others.

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The state’s Department of Health Services must set up a 12-person Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council composed of members from a dispensary association, as well as commercial cultivators, extract manufacturers, edibles bakers, patients, caregivers, police, and more. Arizona’s new rules could, in theory, improve on past work done by other states. In the end that might result in more efficient and affordable testing, which could make clean medicine more affordable.

First Change in Nine Years

The program updates in SB 1494 constitute the first meaningful positive change in the history of the state’s program. Previously, Republican lawmakers tried and failed to weaken the state’s medical cannabis law, while Democrats failed to strengthen it.

Arizona’s medical marijuana law is extremely difficult to change because it passed via a statewide voter initiative. In 1996, voters approved a measure to legalize medical marijuana—but state legislators effectively repealed the measure in the next legislative session. To prevent that happening again, in 1998 the voters passed the Arizona Voter Protection Act, which requires a three-fourths legislative majority to alter any voter-approved measure. That hyper-majority requirement has protected the state’s original MMJ law (which passed again by voter initiative in 2010) but it’s also made it difficult to improve the measure.

That finally changed this year. The bill passed the House on a 60-0 vote and the Senate on a 28-0 tally. A coalition of dispensaries, labs, patients, and health officials made SB 1494 succeed, said Ryan Hurley, general counsel at Copper State Farms, a licensed cultivator.

“It’s somewhat of small miracle that we’ve gotten this through,” said Hurley, who has nine years of regulatory experience in Arizona. “I do think this is good policy at the end of the day.”

“Governor Ducey has continued to erode the cartels and other illegal operators’ ability to thrive off prohibition.”

Demitri Downing, executive director, Marijuana Industry Trade Association

SB 1494 also contains dispensary licensing changes aimed at shoring up safe access statewide. Priority for new dispensary licenses will go to areas where no dispensary is located within 25 miles. Previous law allowed licensees to move after three years, and many stores licensed in rural areas moved to the population center of Phoenix once three years passed. That created medical cannabis deserts served by the illicit market.

“Governor Ducey has continued to erode the cartels and other illegal operators’ ability to thrive off prohibition,” said Downing. “By making medical marijuana safer with testing and lowering the card costs, more of the activity the state sees regarding marijuana use by patients will be driven into the tax-and-regulate market. This is a victory and improvement for common-sense regulation.”

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