Close to one out of every eight high schoolers who admitted to smoking marijuana recently say they got it from a medical marijuana cardholder.
The biennial study done by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission found that nearly 29 percent of students in grades 10 through 12 admitted to having smoked marijuana at some point. And more than 14 percent said they had inhaled in the last 30 days.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority said they had obtained the drug from a friend, with family and relatives also a major source.
But 11.6 percent said they got the marijuana from one of the more than 33,000 individuals who have the state's permission to legally grow or purchase marijuana for their own medical conditions. Because the survey allows multiple responses, that could include friends and family members.
Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said the response could have been foretold.
"I don't think people should be surprised by the fact that easier access to marijuana by medical card holders will lead to easier abuse by minors,'' he said.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Mongtomery, who is trying to shut down the whole program, concurred.
"When you wind up with a purported medical marijuana system that in reality is a recreational use system, I would say that this is a foreseeable consequence,'' he said. And Montgomery said he believes that Arizona will see the same sort of increase in unauthorized teen use that has been recorded in other states with medical marijuana laws.
Cory Nelson, a deputy assistant director of the Arizona Department of Health Services which administers the medical marijuana program, said his agency is paying attention to the numbers of teens who said they got the drugs from a cardholder. But Nelson said people should not lose sight of other numbers in the report.
"We've got almost 80 percent who say they're getting it from friends, and another 15 percent that say they're getting it from family,'' he said. "So we need to make sure we are looking at all those areas and not just the one.''
Nelson said, though, he is not minimizing the problem.
"If people are giving away their marijuana, they certainly are committing a crime ... in providing that substance to somebody that's not authorized to have it.''
Montgomery said one thing he would be interested in learning is whether the cardholder who is providing the marijuana is a fellow teen or an adult.
In general, the 2010 Arizona law allows adults who have a doctor's recommendation to get a state-issued ID card allowing them to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. But the law also allows parents or guardians to obtain a recommendation for a minor child, albeit with some additional hurdles.
The question that remains is whether police or prosecutors can do much about this aspect of the problem.
"When you have a juvenile who is in possession of marijuana, it's not a standard course of questioning to ask, 'Where did you get it from?' '' Montgomery said. "You'd have to have someone volunteer information about where they procured the marijuana.''
Unklesbay said that arrests of individuals for having small amounts of marijuana are rare.
He said some people get charged with possession if they're already being arrested for something else and the marijuana charge "just gets tacked on.'' In other circumstances, though, if someone is found with a small amount of the drug, it is likely to result in nothing more than a citation to show up in city court "and no follow-up investigation is done.''
Unklesbay said it is up to police to find out why a minor has marijuana and whether they got it from a legal cardholder.
"They can use the juvenile's statement to go after the adult who transfers it,'' he said. "I think they'd be interested in that kind of abuse of the medical certificate.''
Nelson said that, aside from criminal penalties, any cardholder who gives away or sells marijuana to someone not authorized to have it faces loss of the card. He acknowledged, though, that can require a full-blown hearing.
Repeated calls to Joe Yuhas, spokesman for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, the group that pushed the 2010 initiative, were not returned. Neither were calls to the national Marijuana Policy Project which provided some of the funding for the campaign.
Attorney General Tom Horne, who also opposes the law, said the findings in the report about teen use and where they get it is consistent with other information about the medical marijuana program.
"The number of young males with medical cards is all out of proportion to the number of young males that suffer from the kinds of ailments that we're supposed to be giving cards for,'' he said, calling the law "badly abused.''
Figures from the health department show nearly three-fourths of all cardholders are male, with nearly half of cardholders younger than 40.
Close to 90 percent of patients approved for use of the drug are complaining of chronic pain; the closest second is nausea at 7.5 percent.