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Arizona bill would charge doctors who sidestep medical marijuana rules with a felony

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona House panel on Thursday approved a proposal making doctors who sidestep rules for medical marijuana recommendations guilty of a felony.

The proposal backed by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk was approved by the House Health Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote with Democrats opposed. It now goes to the full House after a routine constitutional review.

Physicians who violate any medical marijuana rule or law could get up to a year in prison. Currently medical boards can discipline violators, including revoking their license.

Polk said that hasn’t kept doctors from failing to follow rules requiring them to have a physician-patient relationship with each patient and to review their medical history and a year’s worth of records.

Once a doctor recommends that a patient use medical marijuana, they can apply for a state-issued card allowing them to purchase and possess pot.

The statute “has no teeth,” Polk told the committee. “There are no consequences for not adhering to the statute. And of course the physicians under this statute are the gatekeepers as to who is getting these cards.”

Republicans hailed the proposal, with Rep. Jay Lawrence of Scottsdale repeatedly praising Polk for championing the legislation. But Democrats lashed out at the notion that Arizona would be slapping heavy penalties on doctors who can already face penalties from their licensing boards.

“To me this bill seems to be a solution seeking a problem, because if we already have sanctions on doctors who break the law I’m not sure why we’re adding more regulation onto the medical marijuana industry,” said Democratic Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley of Tucson. “This is a plant that never killed anybody, so I’m not seeing the harm.

A lobbyist for the medical marijuana dispensary industry, Kevin DeMenna, testified that adding felony penalties is unneeded because the medical boards have the ability to discipline doctors who stray from the rules. He also noted that the nation as a whole is moving toward marijuana legalization.

“We’re trying to criminalize something that is moving in exactly the opposite direction,” DeMenna said, “We are decriminalizing this. It is now effectively legal on three of our four corners — Canada, California and Mexico.”

Polk and many other top prosecutors in Arizona vehemently oppose marijuana legalization. She led an effort to defeat legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016.

She cited statistics from 2013 that showed just 25 physicians were responsible for 70 percent of the marijuana recommendations in 2013. She also said the most recent state medical marijuana report showed 85 percent of the medical marijuana cards issued were for chronic pain and most went to young people.

“What I see from my perspective as county attorney is a culture of young folks who get their green card and then they’re going out and they’re smoking pot, and they’re not sick,” Polk said. “For me it’s a problem for the state because this becomes kids who are not going anywhere.”

— The legislation is House Bill 2067.