Medical marijuana era under way in Arizona

The state’s first medical-marijuana dispensary opened Thursday in downtown Glendale to dozens of waiting patients, two years after voters approved an initiative to legalize the drug for certain ill patients.

Situated on a tree-lined street near an antique store and a motorcycle shop, Arizona Organix does not look like the kind of place where patients can walk in and buy marijuana, except for a tall sign outside that sports a green cross, the symbol of the medical-marijuana industry.

The business has a part-bank, part-doctor’s office feel.

Its owners spent months renovating the space, polishing concrete floors and installing a giant travertine table and bulletproof windows, walls and bank-teller exchange drawers. Seeking to provide a boutiquelike experience for patients, the owners have decorated the space with art bought at a bank auction.

There’s no hint of the pungent scent of marijuana. Rather, the place smells of the Merry Holiday Happy Everything candles burning in the lobby and a back room.

Passers-by have mistaken the dispensary for an art gallery, one of its owners said while giving a tour to The Arizona Republic this week.

But behind a secure steel door, qualified patients can buy one-eighth of an ounce of pot for $55 to $60 — tax included.

“We didn’t really want it to feel like a medical-marijuana dispensary,” said Ben Myer, 32, part owner of the business with his father and a friend. “We came up with a model of what we wanted — a high-end experience with a lot of security.”

Dispensaries will vary as more open around the state. Some, for example, will offer nutrition advice or other wellness programs as part of their services. Others will sell edibles — such as cookies, candy and brownies —made with marijuana.

Voters in 2010 passed the medical-marijuana measure to allow people with certain debilitating medical conditions, including chronic pain, cancer and muscle spasms, to use marijuana. They must obtain a recommendation from a physician and register with the state Department of Health Services, which oversees the program and issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers.

Patients are limited to purchasing 2.5 ounces every two weeks. More than 33,000 people have permission to use medical marijuana in Arizona.

After a prolonged battle over the legality of the state’s law, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge on Tuesday ruled that the law does not conflict with federal drug laws, clearing the way for dispensaries to open without imminent fear of state prosecution.

Under the law, state health officials can license up to 126 dispensaries. The law does not limit how much marijuana dispensary operators can grow. Each city and town is responsible for setting zoning criteria for the dispensaries; some, for example, allow dispensaries to cultivate marijuana on-site while others do not.

In August, the state Department of Health Services selected nearly 100 dispensary owners to have the opportunity to sell marijuana and operate cultivation sites to grow if they completed certain steps.

Arizona Organix was the first dispensary to receive its license and open. A dispensary in Tucson is expected to open later this month. And ADHS Director Will Humble said a handful of other potential dispensaries around the Valley and Tuscon have requested inspections to pave the way for openings.

Arizona Organix’s opening day drew more than 250 patients seeking strains of marijuana to treat ailments ranging from chronic pain to cancer and Crohn’s disease. About 130 were served. Some carried canes, some shuffled along while waiting in line and others appeared healthy. The parking lot was full.

Christopher Pratt of Glendale said he started smoking marijuana to treat back pain caused by dirt-biking injuries. Until Thursday, he had obtained the drug from caregivers, who under state law can grow for up to five patients and can donate excess amounts to qualified patients.

“I just wanted to come down here and check it out and be a part of Arizona history,” the 23-year-old said.

So did Myer and his co-owners. He came up with the idea of opening a dispensary even before the initiative qualified for the ballot. His friends in Colorado were in the dispensary industry, so he researched the idea and visited about 75 storefront dispensaries throughout that state to figure out which model he liked.

Along the way, he registered as a qualified patient in Arizona, citing chronic pain because of injuries and stress on his body from skiing and rock climbing. He prefers “natural, organic” medicine over traditional medication.

In early 2011, Myer and his team found the empty Glendale property, leased it and began transforming it into a dispensary. Last summer, the state gave the team permission to move forward.

“Look at this place,” he said. “It couldn’t have worked out any better. But this is a business — not a cool place to hang out.”

Myer, who graduated in 2006 from Arizona State University with degrees in business and communications, said his father was bewildered when he approached him about investing in the business.

“He was a little blown away when I first told him what I was getting into,” he said. “But it’s legal, and I’ve always tried to be my own boss.”

For now, Arizona Organix is supplied by caregivers who donate their excess marijuana supply. Eventually, Myer plans to cultivate marijuana in a separate warehouse to add to the supply, which likely will quickly dwindle because thousands of patients are expected to flock to the dispensary for their medicine.

Most of the marijuana is kept locked out of sight. Dispensary workers must verify the validity of patient’s cards before the patient can pass through a locked steel door to a room where they can view 1-gram samples of strains such as J1, OG Kush, Romulan and Purple Urkle.

Different strains are said to treat different ailments and can target back or joint pain, sleeplessness or appetites.

Then, customers order their medicine from workers through a bank-teller-type window, where the quantity and strain are recorded.

Customers are required to pay in cash. The dispensary has an ATM on-site.

Myer said the dispensary won’t accept credit cards or checks because Arizona Organix has no bank account to process them.

Some banks are refusing to handle money associated with medical-marijuana dispensaries because marijuana is still illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Patients receive the marijuana sealed in a tamper-proof plastic bag, which is placed in a white medication bag, similar to those used by pharmacies.

For now, state health officials have advised Arizona Organix to sell in smaller quantities of one-eighth and one-fourth of an ounce to ensure that they have enough marijuana on hand to stay in compliance with state rules.

Under those rules, dispensaries must be open at least 30 hours a week and have enough marijuana to supply all qualified patients who walk through the door, Humble said.

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