Medical marijuana patients purchased 10 tons of pot last year

PHOENIX -- Arizona's more than 63,000 medical marijuana patients ate, drank or smoked more than 10 tons of the drug last year.

That's the equivalent of about seven Volkswagen Beetles, more than 2,300 gallons of milk -- or, if you prefer, in excess of 40,000 eight-ounce bags of Cheetos.

It comes out, on average, to the equivalent of one joint per patient per day, though clearly some are using more and some are using less.

And figuring an estimated price of $350 an ounce, that means Arizonans spent about $112 million on marijuana.

A new report Thursday from the Arizona Department of Health Services also finds:

• 85 dispensaries were up and running last year;

• More than two thirds of qualifying patients are male;

• The average patient made 17 transactions during the year.

It also discloses, not surprisingly, that the major ailment cited by patients to get a doctor's recommendation is "severe and chronic pain,' potentially the most difficult to prove -- or, more to the point, to disprove.

There are other signs that, as much state Health Director Will Humble says he is trying to keep the program strictly for patients in need, that is proving difficult. Potentially the most significant indications is that there was more medical marijuana sold on New Year's Eve than any other day last year.

That 2010 voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act allows those with a doctor's recommendation to get a state-issued card allowing them obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of the drug every two weeks.

Qualifying conditions under the law range from cancer and seizures to glaucoma, AIDS and nausea.

"I think that the people that need it are getting it,' Humble said. "And that was the intent of the law.'

But he said it would be wrong to believe that the program is strictly medical.

"A whole bunch of people who don't need it are getting it, too,' Humble said. And he said that's just a function of how the law was crafted by the Marijuana Policy Project which got it on the ballot and got it approved.

"A component of this program is recreational,' he said.

Want proof? Humble points out that the biggest sales in both pure numbers and pounds of marijuana purchased are among those age 18 through 30.

"Surely, that's not where all the chronic pain is,' he said. "That's in the 50, 60-year age group, after years of taking knocks from life like we all take.'

The new report also shows that one patient actually made 341 trips to a dispensary -- close to every day of the year. Humble said, though, that each of these person's purchases had to be small, as a statewide computer database ensures that, number of purchases aside, no one gets more than that 2 1/2 ounces every two weeks.

Humble also said that just five of the state's dispensaries accounted for 20 percent of the total marijuana sold: 296,001 transactions totaling about 2,400 pounds. But he said state law precludes him from identifying the dispensaries or even in what communities they are located.

Not surprisingly, the state's largest county had the largest number of medical marijuana users.

But the data from the Department of Health Services shows that, on a per-capital basis, Yavapai County has more people saying they need the drug than anywhere else: more than 17 out of every 1,000 residents. Gila County is not far behind at 16.5 medical marijuana users per 1,000, followed by Coconino County at 14.4

At the other extreme, Yuma County had the lowest per capita rate of medical marijuana patients.

This 10-ton figure for 2014 compares with just three tons for 2013. But Humble said the numbers are not analogous.

He said many dispensaries did not open until late 2012. And anyone who was not living within 25 miles of a state-regulated shop could continue to grow their own plants for up to a year.

Now someone would have to live in such out-of-the-way places like Ajo, St. Johns or Seligman to continue to cultivate.

The report comes as efforts are underway to allow anyone to use the drug. That includes a proposal by Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, to allow anyone age 21 and up to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and a yet-to-be-filed initiative by the Marijuana Policy Project.

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