Pubdate: Tue, 04 Jun 2013
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2013 The Arizona Republic
Author: Yvonne Wingett Sanchez


As More Medical-Marijuana Dispensaries Open in the Valley, They Are 
Trying to Watch How They Market Themselves and Interact With the 
Government and Community As They Continue ...

In a very different kind of Memorial Day deal, a Phoenix business 
celebrated its grand opening by giving veterans deep discounts. On 
medical marijuana. Phoenix Relief Center, a medical-marijuana 
dispensary tucked into a shopping center at 35th and Southern 
avenues, sold marijuana to former servicemen and -women at a discount 
- - 20 percent off - and gave away free pot cigarettes to treat 
illnesses and pain. Dozens of veterans with cancer, chronic pain and 
other illnesses have since flocked to the center for one-eighth-ounce 
bags of Tokyo OG, Hawaii Five-0 and other strains of marijuana.

"We didn't want to focus our grand opening on 'Hey, look at us, we're 
open, and we want business,' " said Patrick Romo, a principal officer 
and Phoenix Relief Center board member. "We wanted to say, 'Hey, 
we're open, and we're here to serve the community.' " The 
dispensary's strategy to market to veterans and the broader community 
illustrates an effort among dispensary operators, patients and others 
in the medical-marijuana industry to shake the stigma associated with 
medical cannabis and gain mainstream legitimacy.

Arizona voters in 2010 by a narrow margin legalized marijuana for 
medicinal use, and 38,500 people participate in the program.

The medical-cannabis industry is growing: 21 dispensaries are 
operating statewide, a number that could swell by 100 more, spawning 
other businesses alongside them - cultivation sites, smoke shops, 
testing labs, grow consultants, and insurance companies and 
physicians who cater to the niche.

Yet a victory at the ballot box and early success in the marketplace 
haven't changed the common perception that many chronic-pain patients 
are faking illnesses to get recreational pot.

But industry advocates counter that they are business people who 
deliver a legal product to clients, pay taxes and obey the law.

As part of an image-improvement effort, advocates have formed a 
chamber of commerce, testified before and met with lawmakers at the 
state Capitol, and are gathering unlikely supporters - most notably a 
former federal prosecutor - to help reshape the perception of the industry.

Other supporters point to polls that indicate that most Americans and 
Arizonans favor legalizing marijuana altogether.

"We have no agenda other than to promote a healthy industry and tell 
people about it," said Doug Banfelder, an independent insurance 
broker who markets to the medical-marijuana industry. "The 
bottom-line message is this: Marijuana is the most widely consumed 
illicit drug in the world. In an unregulated market, anybody can sell 
it to anyone and they can sell anything."

Arizona is one of 18 states, plus Washington, D.C., that permit 
medical marijuana.

The Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., a national 
legalization-advocacy group, predicts that, over time, based on the 
number of dispensaries projected to open, Arizona will have the 
third-largest medical-marijuana industry after California and Colorado.

Karen O'Keefe, the group's director of state policies, said 
medical-marijuana advocates in other states have launched similar 
campaigns to legitimize their industry.

"Some have organized together and made it clear that they are good, 
responsible businesspeople, who operate in a professional way that is 
consistent with the fact that they're delivering medical goods to 
patients," O'Keefe said. "In Colorado, there's been an effort to name 
medical-marijuana dispensaries using language like 'wellness centers' 
and to get away from language associated with non-medical marijuana."

The Arizona Wellness Chamber of Commerce, the trade association for 
medical-marijuana businesses, formed in spring 2012. Made up of 
dispensary operators, pot cultivators, doctors and others, the group 
meets regularly to talk about issues confronting the industry.

Members of the group - and others not associated with it - spoke out 
in January after an An independent insurance broker who markets to 
the medical-marijuana industry Arizona Criminal Justice Commission 
study found teens were getting pot from medical-marijuana cardholders.

Medical-marijuana advocates came out in full force at the state 
Capitol this session to oppose attempts by Republican lawmakers to 
repeal Arizona's medical-marijuana law and pass legislation to 
require labeling of medical-marijuana edibles and require police to 
destroy medical marijuana seized in criminal investigations.

The effort to repeal the law has gone nowhere, and the other bill is 
all but dead.

Some of the dispensary owners hired a lawyer, lobbyists and a local 
public-relations firm to coordinate their message to the media and 
arrange meetings with lawmakers.

Mel McDonald, Arizona's former U.S. attorney who served under 
President Ronald Reagan and helped lead the war on drugs in the 
1980s, has become an unlikely supporter who offers a credible voice 
in the debate, advocates say.

A Mormon Republican, former judge and now a criminal defense 
attorney, he says he has devoted his life to honoring the law.

Earlier this year, McDonald, 71, came out in support of medical 
marijuana as the effort to repeal was afoot.

In 1997, his then-14-year-old son was hit by a car going 45 mph. He 
suffered a serious brain injury that left him with a severe form of epilepsy.

Over the years, McDonald's son has taken 30 epilepsy medications. All 
nauseated him and "knocked him for a loop," McDonald said.

His son, now 30, would go five days at a time without food, too sick to eat.

Marijuana was the only drug that helped. Until medical cannabis 
became available, McDonald said his wife, Cindy, obtained the drug illegally.

"She always lived with this sick pit in her stomach," McDonald said. 
"But when faced with the choice of her child or the law, she's going 
to give him life."

McDonald decided to go public about his family's experience in the 
hope it would change people's minds.

"There are tens of thousands of people that benefit from this drug - 
I have seen it with my own eyes," he said. "I have decided that I not 
only want to educate the public, but members of my own faith. I'm 
speaking as a father and as a former U.S. attorney and as a former 
judge. We've got to leave the dark ages - this really helps people."

Attorney Ryan Hurley said stories like the McDonalds' have helped 
advocates reshape the image of medical marijuana in Arizona.

"The fruits, I think, are still being harvested," said Hurley, who 
earlier in the session arranged meetings with lawmakers and industry 
lobbyists to explain the difference between regulated dispensaries 
and medical-marijuana "clubs," which are unregulated.

As a freshman lawmaker, Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, had not given much 
thought to medical marijuana until he met with advocates.

"I walked away thinking these were very good, professional business 
owners that simply wanted to provide a service within the framework 
of the law," Orr said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom