Thanks to an Arizona Supreme Court decision in May 2019, the future of the state’s medical marijuana industry looks bright. This is after the court made it legal to consume marijuana-laced vaping products, brownies and other edibles, and massage oils.
The Supreme Court ruling legalizes products that use THC and CBD extracts or concentrates. This stemmed from the case of a Yavapai County man arrested and convicted for purchasing a little hashish from a state-licensed dispensary. Prosecutors argued that hash is illegal under the 2010 law that legalized medical marijuana. Unfortunately, the law did not legalize recreational marijuana.
Advocates of medical marijuana welcomed the decision of the Supreme Court.
North Phoenix marijuana dispensary Giving Tree patient consultant, Javier Torres, said, “People think that we’re getting doped up on this stuff, but essentially, we’re making ourselves feel better.”
The state’s medical marijuana industry expects the ruling to be a boon. They hope it will attract investors from outside the state and from national brands. Experts have expressed differing opinions on whether dried marijuana is better than extracts in terms of its health benefits. Some in the debate circle say extracts are better since they’re capable of delivering more precise CBD dosage compared to smoking marijuana. Moreover, smoking pot is less socially-acceptable than other methods of delivery.
Other Arizonian businesses laud the decision. A Tempe restaurant that focuses on cannabis-infused foods consider the ruling as important for the future of the business.
A 2018 Arizona Department of Health Services report said that less than 10% of the marijuana products sold in the state were in the form of edible items and other concentrates. This comprised about 12,000 pounds.
Giving Tree Founder and CEO, Lilach Power, said that there is a steady increase in these products. They include massage oils, suppositories, hashish, brownies, capsules, gummies, and popcorn.
Power said, “When we opened, it was 85% flower and 15% was mostly edibles. Today, flower is 50%, concentrates make up 35 to 40% and then the rest is edibles.”
She predicts that this will only rise.
“The more options people have, the less flower they use,” Power added.
National Brands Move into Arizona
The Supreme Court decision can attract national brands to set up shops in Arizona.
Power said, “Those brands can think about coming in and growing their business, teaming up with stores like mine. It’s great. There’s lots of mergers and acquisitions in our industry. There might have been some big companies that were worried about getting into Arizona, and I think this would help that barrier.”
Arizona enjoys a lucrative medical marijuana market. While the DHS does not release marijuana sales monetary figures, AZCentral estimates that the industry made at least $400 million in 2018. This did not include non-drug products.
Experimental businesses are also getting thrilled because of the ruling. They now have a clear idea of what they need to do.
In Tempe, a full kitchen created cannabis-infused dishes to go with their traditional gummy bears, brownies, and other cannabis-infused edibles. The Mint Dispensary now also offers salads, mac-n-cheese, and pizzas containing cannabis.
Raul Molina, Mint Dispensary Marketing Director, said, “Soon enough, you’ll be able to order your coffee here. You’ll have double macchiato with 25 milligrams of CBD and 100 milligrams of THC.”
He added that the business wants to provide cannabis consumers with healthier edible options.
The restaurant uses concentrates in many of its products, allowing it to preserve the full flavors of the food. They view the court ruling as essential to the restaurant’s future.
“Obviously, we were keeping close tabs on it and making sure that we could do our part to make the decision go the right away. It panned out and better heads prevailed,” Molina added.
The Legal Battle over Medical Marijuana
The court ruling followed the case of Rodney Jones, a medical cannabis patient. In 2013, Jones was arrested in Yavapai County after purchasing from a licensed cannabis dispensary 0.05 ounces of hashish. Jones was charged with narcotics and drug paraphernalia, convicted, and sentenced to a prison term of at least two years.
The president and founding director of the Arizona Cannabis Bar Association, Gary Smith, said that the County Attorney’s office argued that the 2012 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act did not include concentrates. This is because of the existence of criminal statutes that differentiate marijuana from cannabis.
“You might be saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. Isn’t marijuana cannabis and cannabis marijuana?’” Smith said. “Yes, that’s true. We’re talking about the same plant.”
Smith explains that the case hinged on the distinctions described in criminal statutes. This is despite the fact that the Medical Marijuana Act is a separate statute.
“The Medical Marijuana Act has its own all-inclusive definition that is separate and distinct from those criminal statutes,” he added. “That’s because the Medical Marijuana Act’s definition was supposed to encompass all aspects of the plant.”
The former director of the Arizona DHS, Will Humble, said the Act’s language is clear.
“We implemented the law. And to me, the reading of the statute that the voters approved was really, really clear. It mentioned mixtures and preparations of marijuana and, in two or three places, mentioned specifically edibles,” Humble said.
The Supreme Court agreed. It overturned a Court Appeals’ judgment wherein the appellate court ruled that the extracted material “ceases to be ‘immunized marijuana’ under the AMMA and affirmed Rodney’s conviction.”
Smith said the court victory was bittersweet for Jones.
He added, “What the Supreme Court did … essentially was to say Rodney ought never to have even been charged. And he spent two years in jail for nothing.”
Power claimed, however, that the implications of the ruling went beyond Jones’ case.
“I’m loving it. Finally we can tell patients that they’re safe,” she said. “We were very happy. I think our patients were happy, too, because they kept on asking questions and we told them our stand but we couldn’t guarantee anything because it was illegal.”
Smith claimed that dispensaries were not prosecuted. Some patients were not as fortunate, with “at least a dozen, if not two dozen” individuals arrested. Unfortunately, “the various police agencies and prosecutors have been sitting on charging these folks,” Smith added, “I think most likely waiting to see how Rodney’s case resolved.”
Considering Whether Edibles and Extracts are Safe, Effective
The appellate court’s distinction drew flak from the likes of Power. She said it is like telling folks “you can eat an orange, but if you want to squeeze it and drink the juice, that’s illegal.”
The distinction is important in terms of an individual’s health. Dried cannabis material is often smoked, which can have a negative effect on the lungs.
“I’m not going to tell parents that they need to now have their kids smoke flower or cancer patients that they can’t use suppositories,” Power added.
The court decision acknowledged the diverse needs of individuals, describing that dispensaries “prepare, label, and report their sales of extract and extract-infused edible and non-edible products to serve patients for whom smoking or eating the plant’s dried flowers is impossible, ill-suited, or undesirable.”
There are also downsides to certain methods of concentrate ingestion.
Humble said, “I think most people expect me to say that extracts and edibles are preferable to smoking the actual marijuana bud or flower. But the problems that we have seen in terms of public health are that many patients, or at least some patients, don’t pay as much attention to the THC content as they should with the edibles.”
This can lead people to take larger doses than necessary.
“You can get super, super high and there’s no reversing it. It’s in your bloodstream and you’re just going to have to ride it out,” Humble added.
Humble also cited the dubious efficacy of certain medical marijuana products on certain illnesses they’re purported to treat.
Humble said, “The voters approved a whole long list of conditions which qualify, most of which are not evidence-based. You can get a medical marijuana card for having hepatitis C. There is no evidence that it’s helpful at all for Hep C.”
He did say that marijuana is effective in the management of certain conditions.
He added, “I think the best data is available for severe chronic pain. And also for different kinds of seizure disorders.”
During his stint as director for the DHS, Humble helped approve the use of marijuana as a palliative for PTSD.
“It helps with some of the symptoms of PTSD – for example, being able to sleep easier without night terrors,” Humble said. “But it’s not a treatment.”
Medical Marijuana and a Growing Social Acceptance
The medical marijuana industry cited the lessening of social stigma surrounding cannabis concentrates as a favorable implication of the court ruling.
Mint Dispensary’s Molina said, “We were really happy that the state finally allowed us to open up the kitchen and to be able to once again take another step towards eliminating the taboos.”
Giving Tree looks at the ruling as an advantage for the diverse needs of patients.
Power said, “The more they understand that there’s so many other options to consume medicine, the less people are afraid of actually becoming a patient.”
Torres, meanwhile, admits that the increasing awareness and acceptance of medical marijuana have impacted his life. He now works in the medical marijuana industry.
For Torres, he looks at the ruling as a “more of a power-to-the-people” kind of decision. He further added that the court decision upheld the intent of the voters.
“We have children who are medical marijuana patients. Nobody wants a five year old smoking a joint,” Smith said.