You can’t really tell what’s going on in the nondescript, tan stucco home in a booming Maricopa neighborhood until you walk inside, down the carpeted hallway, to the room with the warm yellow light glowing under the door.
“You don’t really smell it until the door is opened,” said Scott, 30, unlocking the door with a set of keys he always keeps with him. “And then, it hits you.”
Medical Marijuana Growers
Scott is one of more than 25,000 patients and caregivers who were allowed to grow medical marijuana beginning in 2010 while state officials fought the law and then figured out how to implement a plan for statewide dispensaries.The bedroom shelters a full-scale legal medical-marijuana farm, with 5-foot-tall plants sprouting crystallized buds, and other plants at varying degrees of growth. A custom ventilation system cools the room. A humidifier keeps it moist; a hydroponic system pumps nutrients into plant roots; and professionally wired high-powered grow lamps are rigged to a timer.
Today, however, will be the beginning of the end for many as the state Department of Health Services grants permission for 99 medical-marijuana dispensaries to open around the state.
Authors of the state’s medical-marijuana law intended to limit urban growing by forcing people to buy at dispensaries, so after today, legal growers within 25 miles of a dispensary must begin shutting down their operations except under limited circumstances.
The state will allow current cardholders to grow marijuana until they apply for their annual renewal. Over time, the law is expected to virtually eliminate all growers in the state’s urban areas who are not associated with dispensaries.
Growers such as Scott and his girlfriend, Jody, 44, who declined to give their last names for safety reasons, believe the rule unfairly — and illegally — forces them to buy medical marijuana at a limited number of dispensaries.
“It will really be devastating to the community, to patients and caregivers,” Scott said.
And, Scott believes, it will be financially devastating for him and Jody, who smoke marijuana throughout the day to ease chronic pain caused by vehicle and other accidents. He and Jody socked away his earnings as an iron worker, a Christmas bonus and tax returns to build their own grow room at a cost of about $5,000. Even though the room has doubled their utility bill to about $450 a month, they say it’s still cheaper than buying marijuana at a dispensary.
They also worry that dispensary-grown marijuana could contain pesticides that could harm them.
“It’s like groceries — it’s in the same genre,” Jody said. “If you’re able to grow your own tomatoes … and green beans, do it. With this 25-mile rule, they’re basically saying don’t grow your tomatoes, you have to go to the store. In this economy, it’s going to make it impossible for many people to get their medication.”
Voters in 2010 passed the measure to allow people with certain debilitating medical conditions, including chronic pain, cancer and muscle spasms, to use medical marijuana.
They must register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers. Caregivers can grow 12 plants for up to five patients.
Some caregivers can continue growing once the 25-mile rule takes effect, but only if their designated patients live 25 miles or more from a dispensary.
The state has given about 29,500 people permission to use medical marijuana; it has given about 85 percent of those patients permission to grow their own until the 25-mile rule takes effect.
Under the law, state health officials can license up to 126 dispensaries throughout designated areas statewide. Health officials received 486 dispensary applications from individuals or businesses that want to set up shop in 99 of the 126 areas.
The state will select the winning applicants today by lottery.
There is no limit to how much marijuana a dispensary can grow. Patients can obtain up to 21/2 ounces of medical marijuana every two weeks.
ADHS Director Will Humble expects some dispensaries could be operating as early as September.
Medical-marijuana advocates are criticizing Humble’s decision to interpret the 25-mile rule “as the crow flies” rather than measuring mileage on a grid.
Lisa Hauser, an attorney who helped draft the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, and Andrew Meyers, campaign manager for the organization that got the program on the ballot, said Humble is accurately interpreting the intent of the 25-mile rule.
Hauser and Meyers said the law was designed to limit urban marijuana cultivation as a way to address law enforcement’s concerns of home invasions and fire risks caused by dangerous wiring for lamps and other growing equipment.
Both expected the dispensaries to be operating shortly after the voters passed the law. Instead, the dispensaries were delayed after Gov. Jan Brewer in May 2011 asked a federal judge to determine whether the state law conflicted with federal drug statutes.
Eight months later, a judge dismissed the state’s lawsuit.
The decision cleared the way for state health officials to begin the process of licensing medical-marijuana dispensaries.
Meyers pointed out that the campaign urged people to work through caregivers rather than investing thousands of dollars on outfitting grow spaces in spare bedrooms and garages that would have to be shut down when the dispensaries opened.
“Having individuals grow their own or set up their own little unsecured farming operations is a tad risky,” Hauser said. “But also, it was not to be the default method of obtaining medicine — it was to be grow-your-own only in these limited circumstances.”
A spokesman for Phoenix Police Department said it will investigate and enforce the law if home growers illegally grow marijuana once dispensaries are running.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, who has urged Brewer to halt licensing of dispensaries because marijuana is illegal under federal law, also said her agency will prosecute those who don’t comply with the 25-mile rule.
“They would be committing a felony,” she said. “And it will be treated like any other drug investigation.”
Polk and 12 of the state’s 15 county attorneys are fighting the marijuana law and sought a legal opinion from Attorney General Tom Horne as to whether the state law is pre-empted by federal law.
Horne on Monday issued an opinion that the law’s provisions “authorizing any cultivating, selling and dispensing of marijuana” are pre-empted but that issuing registry cards to patients and caregivers is not. He advised the ADHS that it could go forward with the lottery, saying that a dispensary-registration certificate does not give authorization and that applicants still must go through additional processes.
But he suggested dispensary-lottery winners consider delaying work or investment in a dispensary until the courts weigh in.
Caterer Ellen Bridgewater, 52, began growing marijuana at Compassion First Caregivers Circle Inc., a warehouse-size cultivation center in north Phoenix.
The Scottsdale resident and her husband grow for five patients who have cancer, arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Bridgewater obtained patient and grow cards several months ago to help treat Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowl disease. She tends to the plants, plays jazz to help them grow and regularly meets with patients to give them their medicine.
Bridgewater applied to run a dispensary, saying she wants to continue to provide medical marijuana at a low cost.
“I’m very apprehensive about the rule,” she said. “You want people to have easy access to their medicine, and 25 miles is a long way for some people to go.”
In anticipation of dispensaries opening, businesses that cater to medical- marijuana growers like weGrow in west Phoenix are shifting their business models away from home growers to focus on dispensaries.
The hydroponics superstore targeted much of its outreach to individuals, store owner Sunny Singh said.
The store sells lamps, nutrients, growing advice and other marijuana-related products.
Singh said many of his customers are asking questions about the 25-mile rule and are concerned dispensary-grown marijuana will be too expensive.
“They don’t want to spend top money for medicine if they don’t know what the quality is,” he said. “If they’re growing at home, they don’t have a quality issue.”