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Health chief: Database, firm rules key to medical marijuana program

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Health chief: Database, firm rules key to medical marijuana program

Creating a computer infrastucture and developing firm, fair regulations are key to establishing a successful medical marijuana dispensary system in Arizona, the state's top health official said Monday.

"If we make poor decisions now, people are going to be paying for it for a long time," said Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Under Proposition 203, which voters narrowly approved, Humble's department is to establish and regulate a system that provides qualified patients access to marijuana.

Those who receive a doctor's recommendation will be able to obtain up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from licensed dispensaries. If they live more than 25 miles from a dispensary, patients will be allowed to grow up to 12 marijuana plants.

Speaking at a news conference, Humble outlined his goals for the system.

They include a patient verification database that is accessible by law enforcement and dispensaries. Being able to track plants from cultivation onward is also a high priority, he said.

Humble estimates it will take $600,000 to $800,000 in staff time to set up the database, he said but costs will be covered eventually by application fees paid by dispensaries and patients.

"I don't want the taxpayers of Arizona subsidizing this program in any way, shape or form," he said.

Arizona is the 15th state to approve medical marijuana, and Humble said he has been in contact with health departments in other states to avoid any mistakes they made.

"I don't want to learn those things first hand," he said. "I don't want to reinvent the wheel."

Some issues facing the department include what qualification to set for the 124 potential dispensaries, whether patients can use marijuana in public and verifying doctor-patient relationships to limit abuse.

Under Proposition 203, the Department of Health Services has 120 days to set regulations, fees and application processes for patients, caregivers and dispensaries.

The public will have the opportunity to comment on first and second drafts of the regulations, Humble said.

The department should be ready to start accepting patient and dispensary applications on April 1, Humble said, but he expects it to take until summer 2011 to have the system running.

Pima County has already passed zoning rules to regulate the size and location of dispensaries. The Tucson City Council has discussed similar zoning regulations, but not yet voted on them.

Correction: This story originally reported that the cost of setting up a patient verification database would be $6,000 to $8,000.

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