PHOENIX (CN) — Patients and caregivers claim in a class-action lawsuit that Arizona has been hoarding a $15 million surplus from its own medical marijuana program to limit access to the drug.
In a complaint filed Friday in Maricopa County Superior Court, a group of patients and caregivers accused the Arizona Department of Health Services of charging unreasonable fees to obtain and maintain a medical marijuana card, and then failing to reroute the money back into the program.
"The state currently collects $75-$200 per patient/caregiver, but the current estimated costs incurred by the state for patent and caregiver provisions of the program are believed to be less than approximately $15," the complaint states.
Lead plaintiffs Yolanda Daniels and Lisa Becker claim the medical marijuana program's surplus for 2015 was $2.64 million, more than 21 percent above that year's expenses.
Arizona passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, or AMMA, in 2010, legalizing the use of cannabis for the treatment of debilitating conditions like cancer, HIV, and multiple sclerosis.
"By Arizona's Constitution, no politician, not even the governor or legislators, nor any other government official, may impair this law," according to the lawsuit.
But the class claims the excessive charges are a direct result of the state's desire to limit access to medical marijuana. The complaint alleges former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who first signed the act into law, immediately set the patient and caregiver medical-card prices "high enough to keep needy patients and caregivers from receiving legal access to the medical marijuana program."
Since, current Gov. Doug Ducey, who is named as a defendant, has "maintained the same policy against the AMMA," the complaint states.
The costs for medical marijuana accumulate quickly. According to a 2015 Forbes study, Arizona's per-ounce price for marijuana is higher than most of the western states at $298 an ounce - compared to $242 in California, and $265 in Nevada.
On top of paying for the actual marijuana, patients and caregivers say they have to pay the annual registration fee without help from insurance. The lowest registration fee for those qualified for food stamps is still $75 per year.
According to the complaint, the hefty fees helped Arizona accumulate the $15 million surplus that, legally, has to be spent on the medical marijuana program. Instead, the plaintiffs say, the money remains mostly untouched.
"The excess fund will only grow, as the state continues to compel the yearly excessive fees for patients and caregivers," the lawsuit states. "A state regulatory fee is unconstitutional if it is not in reasonable proportion to the services rendered."
Daniels and Becker say their grievances boil down to a trying, exhaustive process for patients and caregivers, who have had to reach out for court intervention to "compel the state to follow the law" in the past.
The proposed class of medical marijuana patients and caregivers is represented by Sean Berberian of White Berberian in Tempe, Ariz. Berberian did not respond to a request for comment.
The Arizona Department of Health Services also did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Arizona remains an exclusively medical state when it comes to marijuana use, as voters narrowly rejected a recreational marijuana initiative Tuesday night. Proposition 205 lost 47 percent to 52 percent.
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