Pubdate: Thu, 25 Nov 2010
Source: Phoenix New Times (AZ)
Copyright: 2010 New Times, Inc.
Author: Ray Stern
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Proposition 203)

Medical Marijuana:


In Arizona, you can ride a motorcycle without a helmet, conceal a 
handgun, and buy an AK-47. And soon, if you qualify, you'll be able 
to smoke a big, fat doobie. Legally.

Proposition 203, the state's new medical-marijuana law, passed by the 
slimmest of margins once all the votes from the November 2 election 
were finally counted. But it passed by 4,341 votes, and now Arizona 
is on the verge of establishing a billion-dollar pot industry.

The official canvass of votes from the election will take place on 
November 29, and the state Department of Health Services has 120 days 
from that point to create reasonable regulations for marijuana 
stores, known as dispensaries. (In other states, clerks behind the 
counters of such places are called "bud-tenders.") No more than 20 
days after that, the DHS must begin accepting applications from "patients."

What all this means is that in a few months, card-holding pot users 
will be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at any given time.

Cops will be prohibited from arresting these patients for their weed. 
And companies that require urine tests will be prohibited from 
discriminating against card-holding workers or applicants simply 
because they tested positive for marijuana.

Cardholders may begin growing up to 12 pot plants immediately, 
indoors, as long as no dispensaries are open within 25 miles of their 
residences. If a store is within that range, the patient can no 
longer grow his or her own but can buy up to 2.5 ounces every two weeks.

This won't be Southern California, with more dispensaries than 
Starbucks. Only one dispensary for every 10 pharmacies is allowed. 
For now, that means a statewide total of 124. But that's plenty.

The stores will carry different strains of high-potency sativa and 
indica buds, plus products made from marijuana, such as hash and a 
smorgasbord of edibles -- including brownies, cookies, "space cakes," 
and weed-based drinks. These are the same sort of products on the 
shelves of dispensaries in California and Colorado.

You won't be allowed to smoke, eat, or drink the marijuana on the 
premises of a dispensary, though. The law prohibits smoking in "any 
public place."

The law won't just benefit people who qualify as patients. It will 
benefit every taxpayer in this cash-strapped state.

- ---

Before the election, Republican Governor Jan Brewer criticized the 
measure, predicting "compassion quickly will turn to capitalism."

As if that would be a bad thing.

Under Prop 203, current marijuana dealers, including those with links 
to drug cartels, will lose customers to licensed dispensaries -- 
which can sell weed grown only by state-monitored cultivators.

The loss for the black market will be a boon for the state's economy.

Prop 203 will create jobs: "Pot grower," "pot dealer," and 
"space-cake baker," for example, are destined to be legitimate 
professions in Arizona. All dispensary pot must be grown indoors, 
meaning more sales for local sellers of grow lights and hydroponics equipment.

Spin-off work from the industry already is putting money in the 
pockets of lawyers, marketers, Web site technicians, real estate 
agents, and other business-service professionals.

The gross revenue of pot sales alone could easily top $1 billion a 
year in Arizona.

If this is the United States of Amerijuana, as a recent Time magazine 
cover declares, then welcome to Mari-zona.

Before the DHS issues its regulations and begins accepting 
applications, there'll be public hearings and backroom discussions by 
bureaucrats, politicians, and representatives of the new industry.

Much has been published about how strict Prop 203 is compared to 
similar laws in California, Colorado, and the 12 other states that 
have passed medical-marijuana laws. But there are good reasons to 
believe that Prop 203 will become the free-for-all that opponents 
warned against and proponents hoped for.

DHS Director Will Humble projects that about 100,000 people a year 
will apply for medical marijuana cards. He and other opponents of 203 
claim that all sorts of people -- young and old, seriously ill or not 
- -- will qualify for the cards.

If regulation goes too far, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy 
Association, a group of Prop 203 backers and would-be owners of 
dispensaries, stand ready to sue. And they'll be armed with a 
powerful state law: the Voter Protection Act.

In 1996, voters passed Arizona's first medical-marijuana measure, 
called Proposition 200, by a 2-1 margin. Conservative lawmakers 
promptly gutted the bill.

In response, angry voters came back two years later and approved the 
Voter Protection Act ballot measure, which prohibits state 
legislators from changing a voter-approved initiative without a 
three-quarter supermajority.

The act also ties the hands of DHS regulators, because rules for the 
industry can be no stricter than those laid out in the 34-page 
proposition itself.

Prop 203 also prevents the DHS from gumming up the works:

If the agency doesn't start accepting applications from qualified 
patients by April, they can simply have their doctors' 
recommendations notarized and obtain pot.

If the DHS takes longer than 45 days to issue a registration card, a 
copy of the application will work just as well. As mentioned, 
qualified patients could immediately possess or start growing marijuana.

After the DHS begins accepting dispensary applications on April 1, it 
must approve qualified applicants within 90 days.

Here's another way to put this timeline:

Between April and June, qualified patients can begin possessing and 
growing marijuana, and approved dispensaries can start indoor cultivation.

By October or November, dispensaries can sell homegrown weed.

- ---

You'll need a "debilitating medical condition" to qualify for 
marijuana under Proposition 203.

That's quote, unquote. Prop 203 defines exactly what kind of disease 
or malady qualifies.

That is, cancer, glaucoma, HIV, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig's, Crohn's, 
or Alzheimer's will do. So will any medical condition that causes 
wasting syndrome, severe nausea, seizures, or severe and persistent 
muscle spasms.

But all you really must have is a doctor's opinion saying you've got 
"severe and chronic pain."

Many -- if not most -- of the medical-marijuana consumers in 
California, Montana, and Colorado cite chronic and/or severe pain as 
their ailment.

For sure, it will be tougher to get a card here than in California, 
where patients qualify with ailments as minor as insomnia.

And before you can apply for a card, obtaining a recommendation for 
marijuana might take longer than the super-quick diagnoses seen in 
some states. DHS director Humble, an appointee of former Governor 
Janet Napolitano, presumably wants his Republican masters to keep him 
employed, so he has taken a somewhat antagonistic stance toward the 
law. He says he takes issue with recommendations in Colorado, which 
often require "only a 15-minute appointment and $150 bucks on the barrelhead."

What he could do about this is unclear. After all, many legitimate 
doctor's appointments take 15 minutes or less.

Perhaps when it all shakes out, some kind of hard evidence will be 
needed to prove pain. Then, the Arizona program might well be called 
"Pot for Old People."

Because, truth is, if you're older than 40 and don't qualify today, 
you probably soon will. Chronic pain is a reality for many 
middle-aged and older people, especially those injured years or 
decades ago. As for "severe" -- that's up to you. Demanding a 
standard for "severe" clearly would be difficult, since people have 
different pain thresholds.

The most important step in getting a card will be finding a doctor to 
make the recommendation. But it shouldn't be hard. Prop 203 allows 
recommendations from a wide swath of the medical field: medical 
doctors, doctors of osteopathy, naturopaths, and homeopaths.

Dr. Christy Cline, a naturopathic doctor with a practice in North 
Phoenix, says she would definitely consider recommending marijuana 
for people with severe nausea, loss of muscle mass, or pain.

"There are lots of scenarios [where] I think it's very beneficial," 
she says. "My philosophy is keeping people away from the synthetic. 
They're addicted to pharmaceuticals simply to get by in life. That's 
the tragedy in society right now -- the pill-pushing and the 
addiction that happens to the brain chemistry. That's where the 
marijuana comes in and helps."

Yet Cline knows she's going to have to watch out for people who come 
to her simply because they want pot.

"We'll be extra-cautious, the same way [we are] when somebody asks 
for hydrocodone or Ambien," she says.

New Times talked to two would-be dispensary operators who say they 
will have a licensed physician on their business' board of directors. 
Another hopeful dispensary owner said her husband is a physician.

Prop 203 doesn't prevent a physician from working directly for a dispensary.

Once you get the physician's recommendation, you turn in your 
application to the health department with a fee -- probably in the 
ballpark of $50 (this hasn't been determined yet) -- plus a statement 
pledging not to "divert" the pot to anyone who doesn't have a card.

The card expires a year after it's issued but can be renewed.

Another businessman, Steve Schafer of Michigan, plans to open a 
Phoenix clinic that will do nothing but connect people with doctors 
who will recommend marijuana. In his home state, doctors affiliated 
with his company have recommended pot for 8,000 of Michigan's about 
25,000 cardholders, he says.

"There's a real need," Schafer says. "We see the people who are 
reaching out to us."

DHS Director Humble, charged with overseeing the planned regulations, 
says he'll investigate capping the number of recommendations a single 
doctor can make -- though there appears to be nothing in the law that 
allows such a move.

- ---

Medical Marijuana Dispensaries of Arizona's Allan Sobol wants the 
planned rules to be stringent enough to avoid a public backlash 
against Prop 203 but loose enough to allow a robust industry.

"You don't want to kill the goose that's going to lay the golden 
eggs," he says.

Sure, the businesses will be designated as not-for-profit, but they 
could end up paying their top employees and contract workers hefty 
salaries, he says.

Shortly before the election, Sobol's company set up a mock dispensary 
in a nearly vacant strip mall near Interstate 17 and Bell Road. It 
was a smart move. Just about every media outlet in town dropped by to 
look at the display cases full of moss in mason jars and pictures of 
would-be patients on the walls.

It wasn't just a publicity stunt, though -- his business already is 
making money.

The shop can't sell real pot yet, of course, but the company has been 
using the site to teach classes on how to open a dispensary. Sobol's 
recruiting would-be pot-store owners who'll use his firm to help them 
launch their businesses.

He expects the Bell Road location to turn into an actual dispensary 
eventually but says he won't own it. He says he represents the owner, 
who doesn't want to talk to the media yet.

In a backroom filled with folding tables and instructional posters, 
he speaks to New Times and about 10 other people who wandered in to 
chat about the new industry, some of whom claim they intend to open 

One of the posters shows "The Math." Which goes something like this:

If there are 100,000 cardholders in the first year for the maximum 
124 dispensaries, each dispensary will have an average of about 800 
customers. If each customer buys the maximum 2.5 ounces of pot every 
two weeks, at $400 an ounce, that comes to about $1.6 million in 
gross sales per month.

That's about $2.4 billion a year in combined gross sales for all of 
the state's dispensaries.

This optimistic figure requires that each patient buy $2,000 a month 
worth of weed. Obviously, most people will buy less -- unless they're 
violating the rules and sharing their maximum amount.

Either way, the Arizona dispensary business seems destined to be very 
lucrative -- if you can get in on it.

A dispensary license will cost a maximum $5,000 for the first year, 
and $1,000 for each year afterward. For such a small investment, it 
sounds tempting, right? How tough could selling weed be? And growing 
marijuana is pretty easy -- it's a weed.

Another poster shows all the steps necessary for the business. For 
starters, you'll spend a lot more than $5,000 if you want to own a 
dispensary. There'll be expenses for a retail storefront, security, 
lawyers, computers, Web support. You won't find capital for the 
venture at the bank, either, Sobol says, because the federally 
regulated institutions won't lend money to dispensary operations.

Wells Fargo, for instance, tells New Times it won't "bank" 
dispensaries because they're still illegal under federal law.

Sobol, who says he's been in on discussions with the state about the 
coming regulations, claims dispensaries will be required to buy 
expensive testing equipment to monitor the quality of the product.

Maybe this is just part of Sobol's sales pitch (since he'll charge 
clients a fee for dealing with myriad dispensary issues for them), 
but he contends it will cost a minimum of $150,000 to open a pot store.

Sobol knows that public opinion and policy about marijuana could 
change in coming years, putting all that capital in jeopardy. In this 
business, one serious slipup could mean worse than a lost investment. 
It could mean a trip to jail, because legal risks are inherent in the industry.

Dispensary employees are expected to obtain seeds within Arizona and 
grow them from scratch, says Joe Yuhas, a spokesman for Prop 203. 
He's the executive director of public affairs for the Riester 
public-relations company that led the measure to success for the 
Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project.

Prop 203 allows qualified patients to "donate" marijuana they grow to 
dispensaries, so it's possible that some dispensaries may open with 
stock on their shelves.

However, authorities will look closely at such dispensaries, and 
anyone caught stocking a store with illegal, non-Prop-203-approved 
weed (such as even legal marijuana from California and Colorado) 
could be arrested, Yuhas says.

The coming regulations will require state officials -- and dispensary 
owners -- to track marijuana from seed to sale, he says. If owners 
want to preserve their profitable businesses, he adds, they will 
stick to the rules.

Dispensary owners will have to negotiate with pot growers over such 
delicate issues as price and transportation. People with expertise in 
horticulture could pull in big bucks not only in the pot-cultivation 
side of the industry, but by contracting with dispensaries as 
pot-growing experts.

One catch: Prop 203 will protect the medical-marijuana industry from 
legal action by local -- but not federal -- law enforcement. The 
Obama administration has had a hands-off policy toward 
medical-marijuana clinics, but things could change in two years.

As the law stands now, dispensary owners could own and operate their 
own grow rooms, perhaps with one dispensary's large-scale greenhouse 
supplying multiple clinics. Sobol says this part of the business will 
be extra-tricky, because problems with grow rooms -- such as 
employees taking product out the back door -- would jeopardize a 
dispensary's license.

Two men in Sobol's conference room, who declined to give their names, 
tell New Times that they've already spent more than $150,000 
preparing for their dispensary and that they've prepared a 200-page 
business plan they intend to submit to state authorities along with 
their application.

The DHS is sure to receive hundreds of dispensary applications on the 
first day it begins accepting them. Director Humble says he's not 
sure yet how he'll choose among qualified applicants.

Perhaps they'll be selected in a random lottery. Or maybe licenses 
will be sold to the highest bidder.

One thing's for sure: The DHS can't dawdle. Prop 203 will take effect 
no matter what opponents say (as Republicans have emphasized since 
the election: The people have spoken). Then, medical marijuana will 
stampede toward eager consumers.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom