Arizona Supreme Court ruling ends a five-year argument over medical marijuana extracts

May 30, 2019

Five years ago, Arizona resident and medical marijuana patient Rodney Jones was arrested for the possession of a mere five one-hundredths of an ounce of hash. In 2016 he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for drug possession. Last year, an Arizona appeals court upheld that conviction on the grounds that extracts and concentrates of cannabis are not covered under the state’s medical marijuana laws.

The case eventually made its way to the Arizona Supreme Court. The outcome of the case, which was being watched diligently by cannabis advocates nationwide, could literally mean life or death for some medical marijuana patients in the state.

Tuesday, the court ruled in Jone’s favor ending the five-year-long debate and bringing relief to thousands of patients—and stakeholders—under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.

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The court was "unpersuaded" by the state's argument that the act limited marijuana use to dried flowers. According to the court’s ruling, the law permits dispensaries to produce marijuana in its edible form and patients had the right to consume marijuana in ways other than just smoking dried flower.

The ruling reads in part, “AMMA (the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act) defines ‘marijuana’ as ‘all parts of [the] plant.’ The word ‘all,’ one of the most comprehensive words in the English language, means exactly that. Taken together, ‘all parts’ refers to all constituent elements of the marijuana plant, and the fact the resin must first be extracted from the plant reflects that it is part of the plant.”

The ruling goes on to state, "A plain reading of the relevant provisions compels our conclusion that AMMA protects the use of 'marijuana,' including resin, so long as the patient does not exceed the allowable amount and otherwise complies with the statutory requirements."

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Furthermore, the court writes, “Proposition 203 was intended to allow the use of marijuana in connection with a wide array of debilitating medical conditions. … It is implausible that voters intended to allow patients with these conditions to use marijuana only if they could consume it in dried-leaf/flower form. Such an interpretation would preclude the use of marijuana as an option for those for whom smoking or consuming those parts of the marijuana plants would be ineffective or impossible. Consistent with voter intent, our interpretation enables patients to use medical marijuana to treat their debilitating medical conditions, in whatever form best suits them, so long as they do not possess more than the allowable amount.”

One of those testifying in the case was Will Humble, former Arizona Department of Health Services Director and one of the authors of the act. In Humble’s opinion, “extracts and preparations of marijuana (cannabis) were protected under Proposition 203.”

Shelia Polk, a prosecutor for Yavapai County where Jones was arrested, expressed disappointment in the outcome claiming, “the Supreme Court rejected the Arizona Appeals Court's common-sense reasoning and its sound conclusion that hashish is a form of cannabis, which state law defines as distinct from the dried marijuana leaves." Her claims, which are based on semantics in the state’s marijuana laws, were soundly rejected.

A number of social justice and marijuana advocacy groups, including the ACLU and the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, submitted opinions to the court. The ACLU’s opinion pointed to numerous cases of children whose lives depended on medical marijuana extracts.

Arizona voters approved voter initiative Proposition 203 in 2010, becoming the 14th state to legalize the use of medical marijuana for a list of qualifying conditions. Some of the medical conditions which qualify residents for a medical marijuana card include chronic pain, Alzheimer’s Disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), cancer, Crohn’s Disease, HIV or AIDS, hepatitis C, glaucoma, PTSD, and epilepsy. The task of developing regulations was given to the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS). Currently, there are nearly 200,000 patients in the program and about 100 state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.

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The bickering over the issue of extracts may become a moot point in the not-too-distant future as a legalization measure titled the “Arizona Marijuana Legalization, Ban on Taxes, and Automatic Pardons Initiative” is expected to be on the state’s 2020 ballot. The initiative, which is focused on legalizing the use of marijuana by adults, could also eliminate questions about the legality of cannabis extracts and concentrates.

Although the language for the initiative is still being finalized, collecting of signatures for a petition is expected to launch before July. In order to get on the ballot, advocates must collect 237,645 valid signatures before July 2, 2020. A similar initiative was defeated in the most recent election. However, advocates expect a better outcome this time around.

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