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5:18 PM Tue, Dec. 18th

State: Arizona preps for pot shop green rush

PHOENIX - One potential pot shop in Arizona would teach customers how to cook marijuana into treats like cookies and "potcorn." Another envisions offering massages, yoga classes, and marijuana meals to go, while a third wants a simple pharmacy-like shop next to an AIDS treatment center.

That's just the beginning.

Now that Arizona voters have narrowly approved a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana, state officials are preparing for a green rush of sorts. They expect to be inundated with up to thousands of applications from would-be marijuana dispensaries, and with only 124 spots approved statewide, the majority will have to be turned away.

"Most other states, you hang out a shingle and you're a dispensary," said Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, which will regulate Arizona's medical marijuana industry. "I want to avoid those kinds of abuses."

Arizona's medical marijuana measure won by just 4,341 votes this month of more than 1.67 million ballots counted, making the state the 15th to approve a medical marijuana law. Arizona officials are hoping to avoid the problems they perceive in other states, including California, where patients are reported receiving a pot recommendation from a doctor for having a headache. In Colorado, dispensaries opened without any regulation from state officials.

Humble sees limiting the number of dispensaries and putting stringent requirements in place as a way to avoid such issues.

The department is currently considering three methods to decide who gets dispensary licenses and who will be turned away: Approve qualified applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, choose the winners from all applications using a lottery system, or closely examining each applicant and picking the 124 with the best business and security plans.

Humble favors the third - and most time-consuming - method, although he fears that those turned down would perceive the system as unfair.

No matter the method, dispensary hopefuls will have to pay up to $5,000 to apply for a license. In their application, they'll need to include addresses for their pot shops and offsite marijuana cultivation facilities, detailed security plans to prevent break-ins, procedures for accurate record-keeping, information about employees for background checks, a sworn statement that they're meeting a given municipality's zoning requirements, and a statement pledging they will not sell pot to anyone who isn't a registered patient.

The department is working to post a draft of proposed requirements on Dec. 17. Finalized rules will come out at the end of March after a public comment period.

Carolyn Short, chairwoman of Keep AZ Drug Free, said her group believes the law will increase crime around dispensary locations, lead to more people driving while impaired and eventually cause more teenagers to use marijuana.

She said she doesn't feel comforted by the number limiting dispensaries. "Marijuana is not a medicine, it is a controlled substance."

Arizona's measure will allow patients with diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and any other chronic or debilitating disease that meets guidelines to buy 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks or grow a limited number of plants themselves if they live 25 miles from a dispensary.

Patients must get a recommendation from their doctor and register with the state health department.

The limit of 124 dispensaries is based on the medical marijuana measure's wording that says dispensaries will be limited to 10 percent of the number of pharmacies in the state, but that every one of Arizona's 15 counties will have at least one dispensary.

"Oh my God, I believe they're going to have 5,000 applications, and that's probably a minimum," said Allan Sobol, a longtime marketing and consulting professional who is acting as a spokesman for a would-be marijuana dispensary in north Phoenix called the Medical Marijuana Dispensaries of Arizona.

"They're going to be buried," he said.

The would-be dispensary already has its shop open, without the marijuana, and is holding paid seminars for other dispensary hopefuls to teach them what they need to do to be a successful candidate.

Sobol said in addition to medical marijuana and some paraphernalia, the dispensary plans to have cooking classes for patients who can't or don't want to smoke pot for treatment. He said he thinks the state should choose licensees on a first come, first-served basis among qualified applicants.

Greg Rogan, a Tucson pharmacy owner who plans to apply for a dispensary license, said he thinks the state should approve dispensaries based on their qualifications, not who applies first or wins a lottery.

Rogan said he wants his dispensary to be near his pharmacy, The Medicine Shoppe, which also is next to the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation and many potential medical marijuana cardholders.

He said he's looking to run a simple dispensary that focuses on treatment and education about various ways to safely ingest marijuana.

"For us, it's not about making a quick buck," he said. "It's providing medicine to people who can benefit from it and need it."

Jason Medar, a prospective dispensary owner who owned two now-closed dispensaries in Southern California, said he's confident his business will get a license.

He said he's working with a group of doctors who are opening up their own clinic to make marijuana recommendations to qualifying patients and wants to open his dispensary in central Phoenix, named the Arizona Patients Association.

He said the dispensary would have marijuana in various forms, including pot cooked in food and drinks made in the dispensary for patients to take to-go. He also wants to offer therapeutic massages, martial arts and yoga classes.