Medical Marijuana

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Joe Yuhas, co-founder of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, describes the challenges, and progress, that’s been made in getting the state’s medical marijuana program up and running.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. It's been more than a week since Arizona's medical marijuana program started in earnest. I recently spoke with Joe Yuhas, co-founder of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association and asked about the program's early challenges. Joe, good to see you.

Joe Yuhas: Thanks for having me.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about some concerns with the program right now. There's a lot of talk about Federal scrutiny, Federal pressure on everyone involved with this medical marijuana program. Talk to us about that.

Joe Yuhas: I think you are referring to the so-called Ogden memo where they're clearly is some degree of controversy because this remains, medical marijuana remains prohibited by Federal law. But frankly, I am not too concerned about it. The justice department has indicated that under the Obama administration that they are going to respect the laws that have been passed on the state level for medical marijuana. The memo specifically was in response to request by state officials but the fact of the matter is the justice department has yet to prosecute any dispensary operator or cultivation facility that is operating within state laws.

Ted Simons: So, but what exempts state workers from Federal prosecution right now? Just kind of a general understanding?

Joe Yuhas: Yeah, and I think that frankly the controversy that has been raised by opponents of medical marijuana is a bit overblown. The Federal government is not going to prosecute state employees who are carrying out the laws that have been passed by the voters of Arizona or any other state. There's been no evidence that the justice department has any indication to do that in any other state. There are 14 other medical marijuana states in the union now. Others will be adopting medical marijuana laws soon. The Federal government clearly is not going to be in the business of prosecuting state employees.

Ted Simons: What about folks who run dispensaries? What about landlords who lease out these dispensaries? The space to the dispensaries?

Joe Yuhas: The challenge that we are facing is the new industry evolves here in Arizona are concerns such as that. Because of the discrepancy between state and Federal law, there are those that are taking understandably a very cautious position but the bigger challenge for the industry are the, to some degree oppressive zoning restrictions enacted by many of the 90 municipals and 15 counties in Arizona. What I think as the program evolves and the unfounded fears that have been planted by a number of opponents of medical marijuana don't materialize we are going to find, continue to find medical marijuana becomes mainstream in society.

Ted Simons: We had a high profile case with ping, the golf manufacturer, golf club manufacturer threatening to move as a dispensary was OK'd to move next door there. Some folks saying these should only be in industrial areas as opposed to other parts of town.

Joe Yuhas: I think that's a mistake. If you want to encourage pot shops that's what you are going to get. But to allow true medical marijuana to develop, programs, the program to develop here in Arizona, I think we want high standards. And those high standards ought to allow medical professionals, for example, to administrator and participate in a program. By force, dispensaries in industrial areas and next to an adult bookstore you get the type of activity you plan for. If we want to plan for a program that has high standards that encourage the medical communities to administer and embrace this program, then clearly those zoning restrictions have to allow dispensaries to operate in that kind of fashion.

Ted Simons: If there is no dispensary within 25 miles that allows the patient to go healed and grow their own. Correct?

Joe Yuhas: Very true. That was part of prop 203 initiative. And wisely the Department of Health services -- and we are delighted the with the way the rules have been developed. They can always be improved but Will Humble, the department of the department and staff have done a very good job in developing a rules package that reflects the will of the voters and the intent of prop 203 and by utilizing these health assessments areas in the state of which there are 125 of them, that will provide the vehicle for dispensaries to be allocated geographically across the state to discourage those patients from growing their own medical marijuana.

Ted Simons: We have had Will Humble on the program talking about this. One of his concerns are what some folks call certification mills, these fly by night things that open up and all of a sudden they are given OKs for this, that, and the other. Is that a valid concern?

Joe Yuhas: We hope and once again the Department of Health services is doing a marvelous job in their outreach efforts to the medical community but our hope is the primary doctors embrace this program rather than have a limit number of doctors who as you pointed out specialize in this practice. Scrip mills is what we call them. We don't want scrip mills 6789 we want the medical community to embrace the medical marijuana program as a mainstream alternative to treating patient needs.

Ted Simons: How do you guarantee, though, or become a watch dog or regulate as far as having physicians recommending marijuana to patients they don't even know, patients they have just met? That's what we are hearing is going on in some places.

Joe Yuhas: And that will happen unless the medical community as a whole embraces the program. Our hope is primary care physicians will continue to treat their patients as they always have, but now with this alternative opportunity now available to meet patient needs.

Ted Simons: We talk about the chilling effect, the possible chilling effect of Federal pressure on landlords and dispensaries and the whole nine yards. Is there also a concern there could be a chilling effect with doctors, with physicians who just say, I don't want a part of this? I don't want to deal with this right now. Could that be a problem with the program?

Joe Yuhas: Yes, but I think again the department of health services is doing a good job to educate doctors to make them aware of the details of both the initiative language, prop 203, and the rules that the Department of Health services has developed. We are finding more and more, particularly since the passage of prop 203 that medical marijuana is becoming mainstream. I mean, our association is offering a banking program to dispensary operators. This has been embraced now by elements of the business community. It's true, landlords, property owners are -- have some doubts. Mostly that is driven by unreasonable zoning restrictions that many of the municipalities have enacted but again I think as the program evolves, unfounded fears that don't become reality, we are going to absentee a continued evolution of medical marijuana and its acceptance in the community.

Ted Simons: So what the critics of the program are saying, you know, the business of fearful doctors, fearful landlords, concern regarding pressure from the Federal government, equates to a negation of the program, a de facto negation of the program you say --

Joe Yuhas: No. We think the program is going to be very successful. Look, the fact of the matter is, recent statistics show in the year 2009, more Americans for the first time, 2.6 million, abused pharmaceutical pain killing prescription drugs at a higher rate than used marijuana. 2.4 million. The fact of the matter is there is room for abuse in any program. But we think with the regulations of the Department of Health services has developed and with the cooperation of the industry, and I think responsible dispensary owners will make up the bulk of the industry, as well as patients, we are going to have a very good program that will be a model for the nation.

Ted Simons: Joe, good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Joe Yuhas: Thanks very much.

Joe Yuhas:co-founder, Arizona Medical Marijuana Association;

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