State health officials will award the first certificates Tuesday to sell medical marijuana.
Plans are to use one of those machines like the Arizona Lottery. The ping pong balls it pops out will determine which of the 486 applicants are going to walk away with a certificate that awards them permission to be one of the 126 sites where marijuana can be sold. That does not paint a full picture of where people want to set up shop to sell marijuana. The health district on the east side of Flagstaff, for example, has 13 applicants alone. But state health director Will Humble said just being one of those chosen is not a license to immediately start selling the drug.
"They still need to get everything up and running. Inventory control. Security," Humble said. "The IT infrastructure. The computer infrastructure, etc. They ask for a final inspection. And then at that point we'd be able to issue the operating license which allows them to open their doors."
The dispensary lottery is proceeding despite objections by 13 of the state's 15 county attorneys. They point out that marijuana sale and possession remains illegal under federal law. More to the point, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said she has been told that John Leonardo, the new U.S. Attorney for Arizona, intends to seize each of the dispensaries the moment they open because of the violation. She said part of her belief is based on a letter sent by Leonardo's predecessor to Gov. Jan Brewer saying that compliance with state medical marijuana laws is no defense.
"And then I had spoken to a former DEA agent who tells me that the U.S. Attorney's Office does intend to seize and close down the dispensaries," Polk said. "And then I look at California."
Federal agents there have raided some -- but not all -- of the dispensaries licensed by that state. But Bill Solomon, a spokesman for Leonardo, said Polk is off base.
"That definitely, inaccurately, portrayed his position," Solomon said. "We're not sure where she got that information."
Solomon said the policy of the office has not changed since Attorney General Eric Holder sent directions to U.S. Attorneys throughout the nation telling them that going after those who use medical marijuana in compliance with state laws is not a priority.
"We obviously have limited resources at the Department of Justice," Solomon said. "We want to use those resources wisely. It would not be wise to focus on those who have cancer or other serious illnesses or their caregivers. We will continue to focus on large-scale drug traffickers, including those who traffic in marijuana."
Solomon was a bit less specific on what a policy not to pursue medical marijuana users means about going after those who sell it legally. All that means is it remains possible that individuals and companies that have put up their $5,000 application fee and spent money acquiring a site could end up losing it all. Humble said he's not apologetic for going ahead with the drawing and even taking the money.
"Everybody who goes into this, if they didn't understand the risks that were involved in terms of conflict between state and federal law, they certainly should have been better informed," Humble warned. "Because, from the very beginning, it's been really, really clear that the Arizona medical marijuana act is in conflict with the Controlled Substances Act at the federal level."
And Humble said those who want to go into the business of selling medical marijuana have made a choice.
"In the end, it's really everybody's decision to look at the benefits and risks and make their own decision about whether they're willing to risk capital or even their own liberty to open up a dispensary," Humble said. "It's just a calculus that people have to make on their own."