Arizona’s medical marijuana program is going digital this December. Beginning December 1st, the state’s 200,000-something medical marijuana patients will stop receiving physical cards in the mail. Instead, the state will issue new and renewed cards as an emailed PDF image. That image can then be downloaded onto a phone or printed out to show to a dispensary owner.
The change was prompted by a law passed in June that was the first substantial change to the 2010 voter-led initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state. That law, SB 1494, required the state to conduct comprehensive testing by independent, 3rd party labs of all cannabis products for potency and to ensure they are free from contaminants.
Critically, the second part of the bill focused on making medicines more accessible by lowering the cost for patients by making permits cheaper and easier to obtain. As of November 1, 2020, patients will no longer be required to see a doctor annually to renew their prescription, and state-issued cards will only need to be renewed every two years, instead of annually—saving patients a $150 fee plus the cost of a doctor visit each year.
Colby Bower, an assistant director at ADHS, explains that the shift to digital cards will make the system safer and more cost-efficient. “What we really want this to do for patients is increase security and decrease the delay for patients to get their medication,” Bower said. Moreover, he noted that the state spends a million dollars annually on printing and shipping the cards. Aside from the expense, he claims that this system is open to human error in everything from labeling to delivery.
Bower also admitted that this rudimentary switch to digital cards was only the beginning of what he hopes is a more widespread update to the system. Bower said the digital cards are merely “phase one” in a larger plan to create a more intricate digital system for medical marijuana patients, and that the agency hopes to create an online patient portal that would allow people to access their cards, track the status of their applications, monitor how much of their allotment they’ve used, and use an online chat feature.
Although the state isn’t making any promises about the timeframe for this rollout, Bower said he hopes to see some additional features by the spring of 2020.
But what about the less tech-savvy?
Estimates suggest that the median age of the Arizonan cannabis patient is 60, while more than 13,000 patients are at least 71, and over 2,000 are over 81. Although age isn’t always a factor in tech literacy, some have expressed concerns that those who are less digitally fluent will struggle with the new system, and perhaps be impeded from getting their medication. Colby Bower contends that all of the state’s medical marijuana patients have at least a basic degree of technical capacity, as the system to apply for the card is completely online. Nevertheless, some dispensaries are planning to open in-store print stations to make the transitions easier.