Arizona preps for pot shops

Entrepreneurs ready to cash in on medical marijuana

PHOENIX - One potential pot shop in Arizona would teach customers how to cook marijuana into treats like cookies and "potcorn." Another envisions offering massages, yoga classes, and marijuana meals to go, while a third wants a simple pharmacy-like shop next to an AIDS treatment center.

That's just the beginning.

Now that Arizona voters have narrowly approved a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana, state officials are preparing for a green rush of sorts. They expect to be inundated with up to thousands of applications from would-be marijuana dispensaries, and with only 124 spots approved statewide, the majority will have to be turned away.

"Most other states, you hang out a shingle and you're a dispensary," said Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, which will regulate Arizona's medical marijuana industry. "I want to avoid those kinds of abuses."

Arizona's medical marijuana measure won by just 4,341 votes this month of more than 1.67 million ballots counted, making the state the 15th to approve a medical marijuana law. Arizona officials are hoping to avoid the problems they perceive in other states, including California, where patients are reported receiving a pot recommendation from a doctor for having a headache. In Colorado, dispensaries opened without any regulation from state officials.

Humble sees limiting the number of dispensaries and putting stringent requirements in place as a way to avoid such issues.

Picking the winners

The department is currently considering three methods to decide who gets dispensary licenses and who will be turned away: Approve qualified applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, choose the winners from all applications using a lottery system, or closely examining each applicant and picking the 124 with the best business and security plans.

Humble favors the third - and most time-consuming - method, although he fears that those turned down would perceive the system as unfair.

No matter the method, dispensary hopefuls will have to pay up to $5,000 to apply for a license. In their application, they'll need to include addresses for their pot shops and offsite marijuana cultivation facilities, detailed security plans to prevent break-ins, procedures for accurate record-keeping, information about employees for background checks, a sworn statement that they're meeting a given municipality's zoning requirements, and a statement pledging they will not sell pot to anyone who isn't a registered patient.

The department is working to post a draft of proposed requirements on Dec. 17. Finalized rules will come out at the end of March after a public comment period.

Carolyn Short, chairwoman of Keep AZ Drug Free, said her group believes the law will increase crime around dispensary locations, lead to more people driving while impaired and eventually cause more teenagers to use marijuana.

She said she doesn't feel comforted by the number limiting dispensaries. "Marijuana is not a medicine, it is a controlled substance."

Arizona's measure will allow patients with diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and any other chronic or debilitating disease that meets guidelines to buy 2-1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks or grow a limited number of plants themselves if they live 25 miles from a dispensary.

Patients must get a recommendation from their doctor and register with the state health department.