Santa Cruz County residents’ and officials’ opinions on the Medical Marijuana Act run the gamut from expecting it to cut down on drug smuggling to feeling certain it will lead to social decay. Nevertheless, Santa Cruz was one of only three counties that voted to approve the measure.

“I would like to think, frankly, that Santa Cruz voters are more enlightened, but that’s a matter of opinion,” Joe Yuhas, consultant to the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, said of the county’s support of the measure.

Prop 203 carried by a narrower margin in Santa Cruz County, with 51.49 percent of voters’ approval, than in Coconino County, with 53.73 percent, and in Pima, with 57.13 percent. Statewide it passed with 50.13 percent of the vote.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Antonio Estrada told the NI he thinks the county’s approval of the measure reflects something besides enlightenment.

“I was surprised – I would like to say shocked,” Estrada said. “I thought we were pretty conservative, and it wasn’t by much of a margin but still … I like to think (Santa Cruz County voters) would be more informed and knowledgeable … I thought we would say resoundingly no to that in Santa Cruz County.”

Enlightened or not, local residents surveyed this week said they supported Prop 203 usually for one of two reasons: to ensure access for sick people, or in hopes it could decrease the demand for smuggled marijuana.

However, in a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, most residents who spoke on the matter asked that their names not be printed.

California as an example

Nogales Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham said the example of California shows that the decriminalization of medical marijuana won’t lead to legalization. The state passed a medical marijuana measure in 1996, while a ballot measure to legalize possession for personal use was approved by only 46 percent of California voters during this year’s general election.

Estrada, on the other hand, said the Medical Marijuana Act is part of a larger agenda to legalize.

“I think that’s the whole purpose behind this movement,” Estrada said. “Eventually they want to legalize.”

David Hathaway, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent based in Nogales, said the notion that the Medical Marijuana Act or even legalization would decrease drug smuggling is misguided.

“Most of the large volume of marijuana entering from Mexico and transiting Arizona is destined for sale and consumption in other states,” Hathaway wrote in an e-mail. “It is not foreseeable that a modification of rules for Arizona consumers of medical marijuana would lead to any change in the large volume of marijuana entering Arizona illegally and transiting Arizona for other states.”

Concerns over prescriptions

Under the new law, doctors can recommend medical marijuana as a treatment for diseases including cancer, glaucoma and HIV / AIDS. They can also recommend it to treat “any chronic or debilitating medical condition or its treatment” that causes chronic pain, nausea, wasting, muscle spasms or seizures.

Medical marijuana detractors like Estrada say they wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it helps some patients manage symptoms. But Estrada said he’s concerned that some doctors will write a recommendation for marijuana rather than pursue a conventional treatment method because of the patient’s request, not out of medical necessity.

“I hope that doctors are held to a standard that they should be, and when (marijuana is) prescribed it’s for people that really could use it,” Estrada said. “Not that they couldn’t use anything else … Personally I think there’s other medications available in the market to deal with anything that people can use to take care of their issues.”

According to Flagstaff-based attorney Thomas Dean, who specializes in defending people charged with drug-related offenses, most doctors who have expressed interest in recommending medical marijuana to patients are general practitioners rather than specialists, and some are doctors with a focus on alternative treatment modalities.

Patagonia homeopathic doctor Gabriel Cousens at Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center is just such a doctor; his website advocates shamanic astrology and advertises a 21-day raw food health retreat. But Cousens is more than skeptical about medical marijuana – he is vehemently opposed to its use.

Cousens’ assistant and spokesman Joshua Sedam told the NI that Cousens doesn’t believe marijuana is medicine, and said that although it reduces pain, marijuana causes “irreversible brain damage.” To treat chronic pain, Sedam said Cousens advocates an “80 percent live food, plant source only diet,” yoga, meditation, prayer and chanting.

Green light district

The medical marijuana measure stipulates that neither dispensaries nor cultivation sites be within 500 feet of a school, and prevents the Arizona Department of Health Services from issuing more than one dispensary registry certificate for every 10 registered pharmacies, except to allow at least one dispensary per county. Only up to 120 dispensaries will be registered in the state.

County Planning and Zoning Director Mary Dahl said she thinks Santa Cruz County will probably have only one dispensary, and said the planning and zoning commission is looking at model ordinances from other jurisdictions to determine what type of commercial zone to put it in. Dahl said it could go in the general business zone but be subject a conditional use permit, allowing an extra layer of public scrutiny.

“I suppose we could ship it off to the industrial zones but that doesn’t make much sense in terms of accessibility to me,” Dahl said. “We don’t need to treat them like the kind of use that belongs in a red light district, but rather just say it’s reasonable to have a separation from a public school, or reasonable to have a separation requirement from a school bus stop. Liquor licenses are like that. They can’t be within a certain distance of school property.”

The Department of Health Services has 120 days from the date the measure is certified to issue rules for dispensary registration. Dahl said she hopes that with the use of draft rules to be issued by DHS in December, she and her colleagues can create a proposal to present to the planning and zoning commission at its January meeting.

‘Curious to see’

County Health Services Director Kevin Irvine said DHS will probably involve his department in the process of creating those guidelines as the process goes forward. Irvine said he is aware of the medical literature about medical marijuana and doesn’t have an opinion on it yet, but isn’t concerned about the possible effects the law could have on the county.

“I’m reasonably certain, knowing the state Department of Health, that they will come up with rules and regulations that allow proper enforcement and compliance. And proper oversight,” Irvine said. “It’s going to be interesting … I’m just very curious to see how it will work out in the long run.”

Facts about the measure:

•The Medical Marijuana Act allows a patient suffering from certain illnesses to possess up to two and a half ounces of marijuana once they obtain a doctor’s recommendation.

•The patient or designated caregiver can also keep up to 12 marijuana plants in an enclosed, locked facility.

•Qualifying patients still are not allowed to use the drug in any circumstance that would constitute negligence or professional malpractice, or in a school or jail.

•Qualifying patients can’t drive with a level of marijuana metabolites in their blood sufficient to cause impairment.

•Minors must have parent or custodian approval and meet other requirements beyond those of adult patients.