A Phoenix Republican lawmaker is using her power to single-handedly kill a House-passed bill that could provide the necessary funds to finally have a study of possible beneficial effects of medical marijuana.
Sen. Kimberly Yee acknowledged Thursday she will not give a hearing to HB 2333. That House-passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, would provide a use for the estimated $6 million the state Department of Health Services has accumulated in fees from medical marijuana patients and dispensaries.
More to the point it would open the door for a University of Arizona researcher to her seeking a share of those dollars for her proposal to determine whether the drug can used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yee insisted she's not against legitimate research, pointing out she sponsored legislation last year to actually allow marijuana on university campuses for such studies. But she does not think that should be a priority for using state dollars.
“I believe these funds would be better used to educate our general population, especially our youth, about the harms of recreational marijuana,” she said.
That's also the stance of Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.
She acknowledged HB 2333 also allows state Health Director Will Humble to use some funds for such a program. But Polk prefers SB 1389, sponsored by Yee, which would require all the cash in the fund to be used to discourage illegal marijuana use.
“Kids are smoking marijuana at a younger and younger age,” she said, a situation that is not be being helped by Arizona having a medical marijuana program. “Clearly, the kids are getting a mixed message.”
But Orr noted that Yee's measure failed in the Senate.
“It's a moot point,” he said, leaving his bill as the only viable option with any sort of educational component.
“This should not be an ego battle,” he said. And Orr said Yee failed to return multiple messages asking that his bill get a hearing.
Yee acknowledged that killing HB 2333 could endanger the plans by Sue Sisley, a University of Arizona doctor, to conduct research on whether marijuana might help former soldiers with PTSD.
Sisley cleared a key hurdle just last week with approval of her study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but she had hoped to finance at least part of the cost with those state dollars.
Yee said promises were made when she pushed last year's marijuana-on-campus legislation that any research would be federally funded.
Sisley said that was not the case, though she acknowledged telling lawmakers she would look for “public donations.” But in the interim she learned of the $6 million surplus sitting in the account.
“What I'm contending is the private donors have already paid into a fund to support research,” Sisley said. “We just need to have the opportunity to access it.”
The 2010 voter-approved law allows those with certain medical conditions and a doctor's permission to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.
But the approved list does not include PTSD, and state Health Director Will Humble cannot add it absent some peer-reviewed research showing the drug would be effective.
Sisley hopes to provide that research.
Even with HHS approval, she still needs a go-ahead from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration before being able to get the drugs for research. But she also needs a source of funds.
HB 2333 would allow Humble to award funds for any university-sponsored research on the safety, efficacy and adverse effects of the drug.
It also would allow him to contract with local health departments and others for programs “for preventing and reducing marijuana use among persons who are under 24 years of age.” But both Yee and Polk say that language is insufficient to ensure there will be an adequate anti-marijuana message.
Orr's measure does have broad support, with just five lawmakers in the 60-member House voting against his plan, but to get to the Senate floor it first has to be approved by the Senate Education Committee, something that can't happen if Yee won't even bring it up for a vote.
Yee's intransigence drew fire from Tucsonan Ricardo Pereyda who served as a military policeman in Iraq and said he suffers from PTSD.
Pereyda has other medical conditions which allow him to legally buy marijuana. But he said many of his colleagues are not so fortunate – and need the research to make the drug available to others with PTSD.
“The need is self-evident,” he said.
“There's an estimated 22 veterans a day committing suicide,” Pereyda said. “We've lost more veterans due to suicide than actual combat.”
Pereyda said the marijuana helps him.
“I brought that war home with me and have been fighting for my life since,” he said. “I almost put a bullet in my head because I did not know how to cope with what I had seen and been a part of in the sandbox.”