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Arizona justices find cannabis extracts legal for medical pot patients

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Dispensaries of medical cannabis and the patients they serve breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled state law protects the manufacture and use of cannabis concentrates, not just the plant itself.

The ruling ends a long ordeal for Rodney Jones, who was arrested in March 2013 in Yavapai County after police found 1.4 grams of hashish in a jar in Jones’ car.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk has long been a detractor of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA), and charged Jones with possession of cannabis and drug paraphernalia. He was convicted in a bench trial and sentenced to concurrent 2 1/2-year prison terms, which he served. He was released in 2017.

Jones appealed, and the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in June 2018 that voters intended only to immunize patients who use marijuana plant matter. But the state Supreme Court reversed Jones’ conviction Tuesday, noting the law specifically protects qualified patients who “manufacture” products, meaning they intended to protect concentrate users and sellers.

The AMMA defines marijuana as including “parts of any plant of the genus cannabis whether growing or not,” according to the ruling by Vice Chief Justice Robert M. Brutinel.

“Consistent with this language, we hold that AMMA’s definition of marijuana includes both its dried-leaf/flower form and extracted resin, including hashish,” Brutinel wrote for the seven justices.

Prosecutors had argued legislators distinguished between cannabis and marijuana in the criminal code and that definition should be used in a criminal possession case, but the justices based their decision on the AMMA definition of marijuana.

“Because AMMA specifically defines ‘marijuana,’ we apply the statutory definition and look to neither the criminal code nor common understanding,” Brutinel wrote, noting that the AMMA defines marijuana as “all” parts of the plant.

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“The word ‘all,’ one of the most comprehensive words in the English language, means exactly that,” he wrote.

The law also specifically allows edibles and defines “useable marijuana” to include mixtures “prepared for consumption as food or drink,” the justices found. Most cannabis edibles and other non-flower preparations are made from cannabis oil extracted from the plants.

Despite Jones’ conviction and the appeals court ruling concentrates are illegal, manufacturers and dispensaries statewide continued to make and sell the products, which have become a pillar of the Arizona cannabis economy – comprising two-thirds of the booming market statewide, according to Red Duran of Premium Melts Extracts in Tucson.

Statewide as of April, there were 197,025 qualified patients, 783 caregivers qualified to provide cannabis to patients, and 5,875 dispensary agents working for dispensaries, grow operations, or companies that manufacture edibles, oils or other products, according to an Arizona Department of Health Services monthly report.

Duran estimated last June that hundreds of jobs would be at risk if a concentrate ban were upheld.

Aari Ruben, owner of Desert Bloom Re-Leaf Center, a Tucson dispensary with a large-scale grow and concentrate business, said the ruling could have widespread impact.

“This was a historic ruling from Arizona’s highest court for not only patients in Arizona but has implications that will affect how other states and the country interpret cannabis law,” Ruben said. “No one can give Rodney Jones’ two and a half years he spent in prison for what was not a crime back to him, but I send him the deepest gratitude for seeing this through to the end and making sure others do not suffer the same injustice.”

Jones’ attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the case, hailed the victory as a sweeping win for the medical marijuana community.

“The court got it right,” the ACLU said in a news release. “This ruling means that qualifying patients will no longer have to fear being prosecuted for using their medicine in the most helpful form. This is what voters intended when they overwhelmingly passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.”

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But in a statement Tuesday, Polk – the Yavapai County attorney – called the high court’s decision “troubling” and cited the soaring “potency and variety of products” and the fact that any use of cannabis in any form “continues to be illegal under federal law.”

She also said manmade hashish products have THC levels of 70% to 90%.

“That’s the difference between Advil and morphine,” Polk said.

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