Pubdate: Fri, 20 Sep 2013
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2013 The Arizona Republic
Author: Yvonne Wingett Sanchez


Medical Operators Fear Being Undercut by Recreational Use

Medical-marijuana dispensary operators are apprehensive about plans 
by a powerful marijuana-advocacy group to campaign for full 
legalization of the drug in Arizona.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization 
that advocates marijuana legalization and regulation, is a former 
ally of the dispensary owners, having played a key financial and 
public-relations role in passage of the state law that created the 
burgeoning medical-marijuana program.

Bolstered by the Obama administration's announcement that it will not 
challenge such laws, the group intends to pursue full legalization in 
Arizona through a voter initiative in 2016 and in nine other states 
over the next two election cycles. The initiative will be modeled on 
a program in Colorado, which has legalized marijuana for recreational use.

But the group may have a tough time selling their plan to the state's 
medical-marijuana dispensary operators, who are capitalizing on the 
growing market, have invested thousands of dollars to get up and 
running and say they favor the status quo - a system in which doctors 
must recommend cannabis for medical purposes. The program allows 
certain businesses and individuals to grow marijuana in large 
quantities, but home growers are fading away as dispensaries open 
across the state.

Uneasiness among some dispensary operators highlights the divide 
between medical-marijuana advocates and recreational proponents - a 
split that could complicate any effort to further loosen Arizona's 
marijuana laws.

"I'm not so sure that, at this stage, we would be for immediate 
legalization," Bill Myer, co-owner of Arizona Organix in Glendale, 
told "We've still got some issues to work through with the laws we 
currently have. The program is still in it's infancy.

"I think Arizona should probably digest what's going on here before 
we move forward with what's going on in Washington and Colorado. Is 
it going to be a great program, or is it going to be a problem? We 
don't know that."

Myer and some other dispensary operators said they are concerned 
about their financial investments and question how legalizing 
recreational use, which could increase the number of dispensaries, 
would impact their bottom line. Other operators said they favor 
increased access to marijuana for adults but are remaining neutral on 
full legalization until they see initiative language from the 
Marijuana Policy Project.

"There's significant financial investments involved," Myer said. 
"Dispensaries may not be able to recoup before other people are made 
available to do the same things with very little capital investments. 
It's absolutely our concern."

Arizona is among 20 states and the District of Columbia that allow 
marijuana use for medicinal or recreational reasons. Arizona voters 
approved the use of medicinal marijuana in 2010 for conditions such 
as chronic pain and cancer, but the program didn't gain momentum 
until last year, when dispensaries began to open.

Nearly 40,000 people participate in the program, and the state 
Department of Health Services, which oversees the program, has 
limited the number of dispensaries to 126 statewide. Sixty-eight 
dispensaries were operating as of last week.

Already, there is a grass-roots effort, called Safer Arizona, led by 
Dennis Bohlke of north Phoenix, to legalize marijuana for 
recreational use in Arizona.

The Safer Arizona initiative is also modeled after Colorado's law, 
and Bohlke said organizers have gathered at least 8,000 of the 
259,213 valid signatures needed by July 3 to qualify for the November 
2014 ballot. Bohlke said he has no major financial backing to fund 
signature gathering.

Any efforts to further loosen Arizona's marijuana laws will be 
opposed by law enforcement, said Maricopa County Attorney Bill 
Montgomery, who has led a legal and public-relations battle against 
legalization. He said opponents will not be caught flat-footed as 
they were with the 2010 medical-marijuana measure.

"We will not wait to get involved like we did with (Proposition) 203," he said.

"I don't think we have had an honest discussion of what ... the true 
impact of marijuana is on our society."

He said recent studies have found that chronic pot use by youths can 
affect IQs and hurt the nation's ability to compete in the global market.

"When it comes to alcohol and tobacco, we've legalized those 
substances and we've shot ourselves in each foot," he said. "And 
we've run out of feet - so, we've shot ourselves in the head."

If the Marijuana Policy Project succeeds with its proposed 
initiative, Arizona's pot industry will explode, just as it has in Colorado.

Last year, Colorado voters built on the state's medical-marijuana law 
and approved an amendment to its state Constitution to regulate 
marijuana like alcohol - for adults 21 years and older to buy.

Marijuana dispensaries must register with the state and, under rules 
released last week by the Colorado Department of Revenue, are 
required to track inventory through a state online program and keep 
the drug in child-resistant containers. They also cannot advertise to 
people younger than 21.

Colorado's recreational-pot shops are expected to start opening in 
January. Existing dispensaries "in good standing" can apply for 
retail marijuana-business licenses, and state law mandates that for 
the first nine months, only existing medical-marijuana shops can 
apply for recreational-sales licenses.

Christian Sederberg, an attorney specializing in marijuana law who 
campaigned for full legalization in Colorado, said medical-marijuana 
dispensary owners there were also apprehensive about legalizing 
recreational use. He said most of the trepidation focused on how the 
federal government would react, as well as the financial impact on 
existing medical-marijuana dispensaries.

"That was definitely an undertone of what was happening here," Sederberg said.

He said full-legalization proponents spent a lot of time reaching out 
to dispensary owners to discuss the benefits of recreational use, 
attending networking events to make their case and writing and 
talking about the issue on the radio and in print media.

"We spent a lot of time talking about how this would be a net benefit 
for all of Colorado, including medical-marijuana businesses," he said.

Marijuana Policy Project Communications Director Mason Tvert ran 
Colorado's legalization initiative last year.

He said medical-cannabis dispensary operators, for the most part, 
eventually supported recreational use, although some worried about 
losing business to new competitors. Tvert called that argument 
"absurd" and said that, ultimately, dispensaries supported the effort.

"For someone to support the continued criminalization for adults for 
marijuana because they don't want to potentially face competition 
from other businesses in a broader market is selfish and really 
counterproductive," Tvert said, adding that "most businesses were 
either neutral or supportive."

"And now that the law has passed, many of the medical-marijuana 
businesses are very pleased because they recognize the legitimacy 
that it lends to their products," Tvert added.

Dr. Edward Kirk, an Arizona dentist whose family owns two 
dispensaries, in Wickenburg and Quartzsite, thinks pot should 
strictly be treated as medicine, but he doesn't worry about losing 
his hold on the market to other dispensaries that could crop up if 
the initiative passes.

"I already see people have borderline abused the medical end of 
what's out there," he said. "For full legalization - I don't think 
that's a good idea at this point here. It needs to remain medical."

Murray Stein, managing partner for Tucson's Green Halo dispensary, 
doesn't have a strong opinion on full legalization but stressed the 
need to maintain a medical component and state regulation.

"I don't personally think that full legalization will impact our 
model," he said, adding that with 40,000 patients and 68 
dispensaries, the market is underserved. "This is a very powerful 
product. It's a drug you don't fool around with. It needs to be 
properly regulated."

Marketing and political consultant Jason Rose, who represents a 
handful of dispensaries called the Regulated Dispensaries of Arizona 
Association, said those dispensaries are talking with the Marijuana 
Policy Project about their proposal.

Although declining to discuss the details of those conversations, 
Rose said: "It's fair to say that there is concern - significant 
concern - as to what the (initiative) language looks like. The 
question is: How would one (dispensary) transition from a program 
that exists today into a more liberal environment, and what is that 
structure? You have a system that is working in Arizona, and how 
would the dispensaries be impacted? That's a topic of discussion 
among us and MPP."

Thai Nguyen, who operates the Herbal Wellness Center in west Phoenix, 
said that he is anxious about how a recreational-marijuana program 
would affect established dispensaries and that he will withhold 
support until the Marijuana Policy Project releases language on how 
the program would be structured in Arizona.

The public's support for legalizing marijuana is at an all-time high, 
according to a national survey of 1,501 people earlier this year by 
the Pew Research Center. In that survey, 52 percent said marijuana 
should be legal, while 45 percent said it should not. Pew said 
support for legalizing pot has risen 11 points since 2010.

Andrew Myers, who ran Arizona's 2010 medical-marijuana campaign and 
was paid by the Marijuana Policy Project, said the group's strategy 
of trying to create national momentum around the full-legalization 
effort in 2016 could lead to passage in Arizona.

The key challenge, he said, will be funding the campaign in Arizona 
and other states where the group is pursuing initiatives. "Of the 
lists of states that they're approaching, Arizona is among the least 
likely to succeed," Myers said. "Arizona is going to be dependent on 
a lot of resources."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom