Going Inside A Medical Marijuana Dispensary

August 09, 2013

Medicinal marijuana has been legal in Arizona since 2010. But legal dispensaries didn’t start popping up until this year. Now, nearly 50 are open in Arizona – and about half are here in the Valley. But how are these dispensaries policed? And what do they look like, anyway?

bloom Bloom is one of the few dispensaries in Arizona that grows its own marijuana. (Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

Assistant manager Chelsea Mulligan walked through the waiting room at Bloom Dispensaries in Phoenix.

“And this where they can sit down, they can have a drink of water, read a magazine … ” she said, in the upbeat voice of a practiced tour guide.

It looked like a doctor’s office – white walls, white floors and staff in white lab coats. But Mulligan is no doctor. And neither is Joseph Gutierrez, in the next room. Gutierrez, known as Ju Ju, is a patient consultant. From behind a glass display of pot, he described how to use “shake” – or loose marijuana.

“You can vaporize it, you can roll it up into, you know, your own preroll, you can cook it,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with it.”

Preroll, by the way, is medical marijuana speak for joint. Language is one of the ways dispensaries are distancing themselves from recreational pot. Open dialogue with patients is another. Gutierrez helps people match up their symptoms with the correct dosage and strains.

“And every single human being that walks in here is benefited in some way or another from this medicine,” he said, clearly getting caught up in the moment. “Everybody. This was made for us. It was a gift given to us.”  

Or, according to the state of Arizona, it’s medication given to qualified medical marijuana card holders. They’re the only ones who can buy from dispensaries – or use the pot obtained from one. But that isn’t really policed by the police.

In Phoenix, medical marijuana is regulated by Maricopa County Health. The department’s Juli Boles makes sure each dispensary has the required medical director, security and inventory controls. She explained that patients appreciate this level of scrutiny.

In her words, “They feel more comfortable knowing that they’re walking into a place that’s been approved by the department and they’re buying in a legal manner.”

Patients know it’s legal because they receive a monthly newsletter that lists the names and addresses of every dispensary in the state. Boles can’t give any of that information to the public, the media – or even the police. Instead, police could find that information on several websites that list marijuana distributors. Some are known as “compassion clubs,” which may look and feel like dispensaries but are not licensed by the state.

But Phoenix Police Officer James Holmes insists going after them is not a priority.

“No, we’re not running around and we’re going to every place that looks like a compassion club or a medical marijuana dispensary. That’s not our goal,” he said. “But if we receive information, we receive a complaint, we are going to come and have a look.”

These “looks” have resulted in a handful of busts at illegal businesses recently. At least three this summer. Some people think it’s unfair that state-licensed sellers now have a monopoly on the medical marijuana market.

But Dr. Gina Berman thinks dispensaries like hers offer something illicit businesses can’t. She’s the medical director at Giving Tree Wellness Center in Phoenix. Burman said there’s still a stigma attached to medical marijuana when someone has to buy it off the street or from an illegal operation.

“And that’s the big difference. When you walk in here, it’s open, it’s welcoming,” she said. “We wanted a high-end spa or medical office atmosphere. We want patients to be able to hold their heads high and not feel ashamed of what they’re doing, because there’s no shame in what they’re doing.”

That message seems to resonate with the patients in Berman’s waiting room. They flip through magazines and chat like at any doctor’s office.

But some people in Arizona are less convinced. Representative Chester Crandell is one of 12 Arizona legislators that recently signed a letter urging law enforcement to crack down on compassion clubs. The Heber Republican said he’s bothered by the idea of medical marijuana in general.

“You know, there’s no, prescriptions, no dosage,” he said. “No, ‘How much do you need for this? How much do you need for that? What’s too much?’”

Crandell added that his constituents agree with him. He thinks they’ve kept dispensaries – and illegal compassion clubs – out of their backyard.

“We have neither, here in Heber,” he said.

Actually, there is one dispensary in Heber – and two in Navajo County. But to be fair, Crandell probably wouldn’t know where they are unless he qualified for his own medical marijuana card.