Arizona's Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Remain in Limbo

Dec 22, 2011


Last year, Arizona became the 17th state in the nation to approve a medical marijuana law. But, a year later, that law is far from being fully implemented. Governor Jan Brewer is challenging a key provision that provides for opening dispensaries. And, as Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl reports, that’s left some 16 thousand card-holding patients and dozens of potential dispensary owners with few options.

“…here’s the front office, behind that door over there will be a therapy room where we’ll have a naturopathic doctor who will see people…”

 David Grandon is the owner of the Grassroots Wellness Center in Flagstaff. It opened for business a few days ago as a health care facility, offering naturopathic medicine, massage therapy and a slew of workshops.

“…we have a full classroom where we’ll do culinary work, we’ll do end of life seminars and classes…”

Grassroots was ALSO supposed to be one of northern Arizona’s first medical marijuana dispensaries. But, with the state law in limbo, David Grandon says what was poised to be a burgeoning industry for the state has now been nipped in the bud.

 “…we initially had investors for three dispensaries. But as soon as it seemed like it was on hold, all those investors became very wary. And can you blame them?…”

So far, Grandon has invested about ten thousand dollars and taken out a second mortgage on his home to fund the wellness center. He’s put money into a lease and paid various fees to operate as a non-profit. He doesn’t expect to get any of that back. Grandon believes he’s done everything the state has asked him to do under the medical marijuana law. And now he wants Arizona to do the same.

“…it was supposed to be quite easy, you were supposed to be able to go to your local dispensary and pick it up. And what I’m hearing over and over again, I have my medical marijuana card, ok, now where do I get my medicine? Well, that’s all up in the air…”

At issue is Governor Brewer’s challenge to the law. The Governor says she’s concerned state employees could be prosecuted under federal laws for enabling the distribution of an illegal drug. But, so far, that hasn’t happened anywhere in the country.

“…I really don’t take seriously the threat – and I don’t think it’s a threat – that state officers are going to be criminally prosecuted for violating federal law because they’re enforcing state law. The most that would happen is that they’d be warned…”

That’s Paul Bender, an emeritus law professor at Arizona State University. Because the Feds remain ambiguous about potential prosecutions, Bender believes there’s only one realistic solution for Arizona.

" it would seem to me the thing for the state to do is to go ahead and follow its own law and put the burden on the federal government…to say we should stop…”

Currently, Arizona law allows people to apply for and receive medical marijuana cards. That classification entitles them to grow up to 12 plants for personal use and to share with other card holders. But, those options aren’t possible for people like “Chris” of Flagstaff. He asked that we not use his real name. “Chris” is a quadriplegic, the result of a cliff diving accident 27 years ago when he was just 14. 

"...spasticity has become kind of the bane of my days, and that does cause me some serious grief…”

“Chris says years of narcotic pain killers did nothing for his ailments and left him addicted on more than one occasion. He says marijuana is the only thing that helps alleviate his severe and near constant muscle spasms and the gastric distress associated with the settling and deterioration of his spine. But “Chris’s” physical limitations make it impossible for him to grow his own marijuana plants. So even though he’s got a legitimate medical marijuana patient care, Chris” says he still has to go through illegal channels to get it. He’s disappointed that Governor Jan Brewer is holding up what he feels is a crucial medicinal option for many people.

“…it’s frustrating and it’s frightening to think that there’s just gonna be one more spot that someone’s gonna want to reach in and control how I can live and whether or not I’m doing right or wrong by their standards. We’ve gotta try something here and make available some of this product to the people who need it…”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal judge in Phoenix that Governor Jan Brewer’s challenge to Arizona’s medical marijuana law should be thrown out. And Arizona’s former top federal prosecutor said publicly that the federal government has “no intention of targeting or going after people who are implementing or complying with state law.” But, for now, Arizona is still refusing to allow dispensaries to open.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl.