PHOENIX — Medical marijuana users in the Tucson area may have less than 48 hours to ensure they can keep growing their own, legally, at least for another year.
State health officials are scheduled to perform a final inspection Tuesday at a proposed medical marijuana dispensary on the city's east side. That will pave the way for the owners to start selling the drug legally — at least under state law — to cardholders.
But the other side of the equation is that the 2010 voter-approved medical marijuana law says only those who are at least 25 miles from a licensed dispensary are entitled to cultivate their own medicine.
Up until last week, that has allowed all of the 33,600 medical marijuana users to seek permission to grow, as there have been no dispensaries. That first changed on Thursday when the state gave the go-ahead for a dispensary in Glendale.
If the Tucson site passes inspection on Tuesday, that same restriction will kick in not just through all of Tucson, Oro Valley, Catalina and Vail, but also into part of Marana, to the edge of Green Valley and halfway to Benson.
That area encompasses more than 3,100 legal medical marijuana users, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Health Services. Anyone in that area would then have to buy their drugs from a licensed dispensary.
But there's a loophole of sorts.
State Health Director Will Humble said anyone who gets a completed application to his department by the end of the day Monday will be entitled to also get grow-your-own permission.
And anyone who already has a card with cultivation privileges gets to keep that until the annual expiration date, “even if they live right next door to the new dispensary.''
But Humble said many existing cardholders already are angling to be able to keep growing marijuana as long as they can. “We've actually seen people renew before their year is up and they pay their additional fee before they actually have to pay their fee,'' he said.
“I can only surmise that some of them are doing that because they know that we've said we're going to ‘grandfather' in their cultivation and they want a longer-out date for the end date. I can't think of another reason why someone would want to renew early.''
That could create a crush of online applications and renewals Monday from Tucsonans — nothing is done in person — to beat the deadline. Humble said if the Tucson dispensary is given the go-ahead Tuesday, any application received that day will be reviewed to see if the person is within the 25-mile radius.
“And that's as the crow flies,'' he said, not road miles.
Renewing early, however, comes at a price.
It costs $150 for a new application or annual renewal. That doesn't count the $100 or so for a doctor to provide the necessary annual certification that a patient has a medical condition for which state law allows medical marijuana to be used.
Humble acknowledged that, at least for now, the first couple of dispensaries will have no competition. And that could allow them to set prices wherever they want.
But Humble said he is presuming that by the time most of the existing user permits are due for renewal, other shops will have opened their doors.
That, however, will mean more and more areas of the state with dispensaries within 25 miles. And Humble figures that a year from now, there may only be 5,000 cardholders who still have growing privileges.
“Ultimately, you'll have to be in a really remote part of the state to be authorized to cultivate,'' he said.
The dispensaries would have been operating long before now. But state health officials, at the direction of Gov. Jan Brewer, refused to even accept applications based on questions of whether public employees who process them would be violating federal drug laws.
A federal judge threw out the governor's lawsuit. And a state judge, in a separate case, ordered the state to proceed.
That, however, has not ended the legal wrangling. Attorney General Tom Horne and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery are asking yet another judge to rule that the federal Controlled Substances Act bars the state from licensing dispensaries. The judge in that case has not yet issued a ruling.