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NEW YORK TIMES


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In Arizona, you can buy marijuana, but not sell it

By Marc Lacey

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:35 a.m. HST, Jul 23, 2011



PHOENIX » Marijuana is known to cause red eyes, gales of laughter and the munchies. In Arizona, add another side effect: utter confusion, even for those who don't use it.

Voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative in November allowing medical marijuana in the state, but the result has been just the opposite of an orderly system of dispensing cannabis to the truly sick. Rather, police raids, surreptitious money transfers and unofficial pot clubs have followed passage of the law, creating a chaotic situation not far removed from the black-market system that has always existed.

"There's confusion," said Ross Taylor, who owns CannaPatient, a newly formed company that helps patients get the medical certification required to receive state-issued medical marijuana cards. "There are a lot of unsure people, and not just because of what happened to me."

Police raided Taylor's home in June, one of several instances in which authorities in the state have showed signs of resisting implementation of the new law, which took effect at the start of the year.

Gov. Jan Brewer -- who campaigned against the law, then signed it with reluctance -- said in May that the state, which has issued more than 7,500 cards to medical marijuana patients, would delay issuing licenses to marijuana dispensaries, as the law requires. Instead, she filed suit in federal court seeking a ruling on whether the state's medical marijuana law conflicted with federal prohibitions on marijuana. So the patients have their cards permitting them to buy marijuana in Arizona, but no official place to do so.

Arizona is not just another state when it comes to marijuana. More Mexican-grown marijuana enters this state than any other, according to the federal government's drug seizure data. On June 8, the authorities recovered more than 1,200 pounds of the drug from an SUV that led them on a 20-mile chase through dirt roads near the border.

The police operation that took place the next day in Gilbert, a community outside Phoenix, netted a considerably smaller haul: about 2 ounces. In that case, the police executed a search warrant on Taylor's house after getting a tip from the cable man. The officers, Taylor said, did not appear interested in his medical marijuana card, which permits him to grow up to a dozen marijuana plants in his home or obtain up to 2.5 ounces from a caregiver or a dispensary.

The Gilbert Police Department said that it was pursuing those who were taking advantage of the new law.

The law does not permit the sale of marijuana outside of nonprofit dispensaries. But because the state has yet to approve any such outlets to sell marijuana, other ways of getting the drug are being tried.

Police last month raided the offices of a group in Tempe that was growing marijuana and selling it to card holders. Garry Ferguson, founder of the organization, Medical Marijuana Advocacy Group, told reporters that he understood the law to allow the sale of marijuana from one card holder to another.

Unofficial cannabis clubs, which are not mentioned in the law, are also emerging. They purport to offer free marijuana to card holders, albeit for a membership fee. For now, they are unregulated.

"In lieu of a regulated industry, we're now creating an environment in which patients are growing their own with limited oversight, and these private clubs of questionable legality are popping up," said Joe Yuhas of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, which led the medical marijuana campaign.

Brewer, a Republican, recently lamented "the dreadful situation" the state now finds itself in with marijuana legal for some.

The state's legal case has been assigned to the same federal judge who found parts of Arizona's immigration law to be unconstitutional. In that dispute, Arizona argued against the idea that the state should be hamstrung by federal immigration law. In this instance, the state seems to be seeking a ruling that federal law ought to prevail.

"The state has been beating the drum on states' rights, but all of a sudden it has taken a 180-degree turn," said Ken Frakes, a lawyer for the Rose Law Group, which represents a number of marijuana dispensary applicants.

Brewer said the decision to go to court was made to protect state employees from prosecution after Dennis K. Burke, the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, sent a letter to state officials warning that the federal government still considered marijuana an illegal drug and would go after those who ran large marijuana production operations. Burke has subsequently said he had no intention of prosecuting state employees.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey held up implementation of his state's medical marijuana law, one of 16 across the country, over similar concerns, but he announced this week that he would allow the program to go ahead.

In Arizona, some of the cannabis clubs are operating surreptitiously, seeking to avoid the notice of law enforcement. But not the 2811 Club, named for the provision of the law allowing state-approved marijuana patients to share marijuana among themselves.

Allan Sobol, the club's marketing manager, has invited reporters in and offered instruction on the ins and outs of the new law to a group of Phoenix police officers. Everyone who enters must have a state-issued card, and no smoking is allowed on the premises, to prevent people from driving under the influence.

The dimly lit club offers classes and has computers and books available to research the many plant varieties, and comfortable chairs to enable patients to chat amongst themselves. It is the marijuana counter, though, that brings people in. Club members, who pay a $25 application fee, also must pay $75 every time they walk through the door. Once inside, they are entitled to about 3 grams of marijuana, which is grown by other card holders and donated to the club. Those growers, according to the law, can be compensated only for the cost of their supplies.

On a recent afternoon, there were a number of varieties available, including Master Kush, Blue Dream and Granddaddy Purple.

"There's nothing to be ashamed of when you come in," said Sobol, who has emerged as a spokesman for the embattled industry, but says he tried marijuana for the first time last week when he ate a salad made with marijuana dressing. "We want people to come in with dignity and get this medicine that is now legal."

Sobol said he is convinced that the club, which is planning to expand throughout the Phoenix area, is on solid legal ground. But the club does not comply with the strict regulatory requirements for dispensaries, which has prompted state officials to order an investigation.

Sobol said that given all the uncertainty surrounding the program, he would be foolhardy not to look over his shoulder.

"We have to be concerned," he said. "I have lawyers on call. They may arrest me, but if that day comes and they come barging through the front door, I'm convinced they'll never convict me."






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