Legal medical industry in Arizona
Arizona Hemp Center's Medical Marijuana Blog is a continually updated resource of news and information regarding proposition 203 in Arizona and medical marijuana use across the country. Our goal is to help promote the drug as a viable method of treatment for certain illnesses, and also share best practices for consumption on medical marijuana.
Inside the suite of a nondescript industrial park in west Phoenix, an armed security guard in a bulletproof vest guards dozens of tents filled with lush plants that supply medical-marijuana patients throughout the state.
All day long, men and women with varying medical conditions swing through the doors of the cultivation center to tend their crops, allowing fresh air to seep into the office suite, which reeks of a musky, skunklike odor. As hard-rock music blares, the growers measure nutrients, roll blunts (cigars), prune plants and prepare buds for drying.
When they need pointers on yielding the best harvest, they go to Bruce Barnes, a 32-year-old “master grower” who works for the center and specializes in growing highly potent marijuana that patients use to treat ailments ranging from cancer to chronic pain. Barnes helps patients and caregivers grow high-grade marijuana using sophisticated techniques to manipulate the plants with light, nutrients and air.
Arizona’s medical-marijuana era is still young, and Barnes is one of the few expert growers in the state who works for dispensary operators or cultivation sites that stock the drug for some of the 33,601 patients who are permitted to use it under state law.
While marijuana is illegal in most states and under federal law, it is still a plant and, like any successful farmer, Barnes can simply look at one and determine its variety and health condition.
“It’s like being a sommelier of wine,” said Robert Calkin, president of the Cannabis Career Institute, a California marijuana school. “You have to be familiar with every aspect of the method of creating the medical marijuana. You have to be able to identify strains of marijuana, know all the different kinds, know how to grow all the different kinds, know all the different methods and know how to grade and judge the values of it just by looking at it.”
At 6-foot-4 with a goatee and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt that covers tattoos on both arms, Barnes presides over one of the largest grow sites in the state. Since Arizona’s program is so new, the state has the potential to become a mecca for growers who can produce cost-effective plantations of marijuana that smells good and tastes better. Already, growers from other states are flocking to Arizona to sell their skills, seeing potential in this unsaturated market.
Behind the office doors, Barnes is known by some as the “marijuana king.”
He can look at plants and quickly determine whether pH levels are off or if diseases are developing. In this line of work, a career is made by growing buds that can pass the muster of both discerning marijuana aficionados — such as longtime medical-pot users and growers — and amateur patients who seek specific strains to treat specific ailments.
“It’s mentally challenging because you’re not just thinking about the day,” Barnes said. “You’ve got to be planning out the next two months, so you’re constantly cloning and preparing for plants to move into flowers.”
Still, he said with a crooked smile, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Must register with state
Barnes is allowed to cultivate under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, which was passed by voters in 2010.
The law allows people with certain medical conditions, including chronic pain, cancer and muscle spasms, to use the drug after obtaining a physician’s recommendation.
They must register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers, who can grow 72 plants for themselves and up to five other patients.
But by this time next year, state health officials expect most — if not all — marijuana cultivation to take place at dispensaries or off-site grow centers, similar to the one where Barnes works.
The Arizona Department of Health Services, which oversees the program, can license up to 126 dispensaries in designated areas statewide. As of Jan. 30, six dispensaries were operating in Phoenix, Tucson, Cochise County near Willcox, and Williams. Four more dispensaries could soon open.
Patients can obtain up to 2½ ounces of medical marijuana every two weeks. There is no limit to how much marijuana a dispensary or cultivation center can grow.
Barnes works to maximize quality for the estimated 60 caregivers who rent space at Compassion First Caregiver Circle’s grow site near 26th Avenue and McDowell Road.
One recent morning, he started his day checking nutrient levels, dipping a digital monitor into giant blue barrels that hold solutions of water and organic nutrients that feed the plants. He adjusted the warehouse’s temperature, climate, light, humidity and other elements that control the plants’ growth stages.
“It takes some time to learn the plants,” he explained, as he crouched down to analyze a stalk. “You really just learn how to adjust things on the fly.”
Barnes walked in and out of the 7-foot-tall black canvas tents that house the plants. He cut clones and replanted them. He schooled one grower, a caregiver, on how to rid his plants of spider mites and another on optimal pH levels.
Barnes, who bought pot from friends and smoked it as a teen growing up in Mesa, never aspired to be a professional marijuana cultivator. Back then, he figured he’d find a career in a science field — maybe biology or marine science.
But he followed in his father’s footsteps and started working in the construction industry as a painter. He smoked every now and then recreationally and started using marijuana medically — but illegally — around 1999 to relieve knee and shoulder pain from high-school football injuries and an all-terrain-vehicle accident.
Barnes got into the medical-marijuana industry in 2001. He moved to Rollinsville, Colo., and started working as a low-level bud tender at an indoor dispensary, where he used some of the skills that his grandfather, a Gilbert farmer, taught him.
“I grew up on the farm,” he said. “When I felt that I could make a better product, I’d use my knowledge of gardening, and so it all came together.”
Barnes read books about growing medical marijuana, traded techniques with other experts, watched video tutorials and kept up with new research, honing his skills and experimenting with different nutrients, strains and hybrids. He worked his way up to lead grower, overseeing the growth of 25 to 30 pounds of marijuana each week and supplying three dispensaries.
In late 2009, he returned to Arizona and restarted a painting business with his brother.
In 2011, a year after Arizona voters approved the medical-marijuana law, Barnes was on Craigslist looking for painting jobs. He clicked on a page and ended up on an advertisement looking for expert medical-marijuana growers.
He answered the ad and interviewed for the job, touting his experience in Colorado. He was hired in January 2012. “They weren’t just looking for a closet grower,” he recalled.
Variety of ways to grow
Some home growers still cultivate marijuana out of their closets, reminiscent of the days when high-schoolers and hippies tried to hide their plants from parents and prying eyes.
Barnes recently gave up growing marijuana at home, where he tended it in a professional tent set up in a shed attached to his house. (His wife is going to law school and he didn’t want to jeopardize her career.)
There are many ways to grow marijuana — indoor, outdoor, with soil, hydroponic, aeroponics, to name a few.
The rise of legalized medical marijuana over the years in 18 states and Washington, D.C., has led to a surge in indoor growing by both patients and cultivation centers that invest in expensive hydroponic systems, which generally use water, nutrients and non-soil mediums and can cost thousands of dollars to set up and thousands more each month to operate and maintain.
Barnes uses a hydroponic drip-to-waste system that uses a soil substitute, which allows him to control nutrient levels and maximize output. The buds are green, sticky and studded with crystals — characteristics of high-quality marijuana.
Barnes is constantly trying to improve his methods but models part of his technique after Ed Rosenthal, a renowned California cannabis grower and horticulturist, and other well-known growers.
Rosenthal, author of “Marijuana Grower’s Handbook,” published in 2010, said no method is better than another.
“If you speak with 10 gardeners, you have 20 ways of growing things like tomatoes — and that’s the same with marijuana,” Rosenthal told The Arizona Republic in a recent phone interview. “Everybody’s right — there are millions of ways of doing it, and people are constantly developing their own ways of doing it.”
Many growers also experiment with different strains, which are said to treat different ailments.
Sativa strains, for example, are typically used during the day because they provide pain relief but generally don’t affect a patient’s ability to be active. Barnes said sativas are often used to treat conditions such as depression, nausea and chronic pain and tend to suppress the appetite.
Indica strains, meanwhile, are best for nighttime because they induce what Barnes calls a “couch lock,” meaning they induce intense sedation and help treat pain, arthritis, insomnia and other conditions.
The science behind the effectiveness of marijuana in treating medical conditions is clouded in controversy. Some research generally indicates that marijuana is effective in dulling pain, controlling nausea and treating other ailments. But opponents question the legitimacy of such studies and argue that marijuana use could lead to additional health risks.
Most agree that more research needs to be conducted to determine marijuana’s effectiveness. Such efforts, however, are hampered by federal drug-control laws that restrict marijuana research.
Research — or lack of it — doesn’t prevent patients and caregivers from using marijuana for medical purposes.
Those like John Batchan, a Phoenix ticket scalper, still report to the cultivation center day after day to tend their crops. He said 25 years of walking around venues to sell tickets has taken a toll on his feet. Batchan became a medical-marijuana patient last October and began growing at the center about three months ago with help from Barnes.
“As you can see, I’ve got a green thumb now,” Batchan said while taking a break from watering a tent full of plants.
Barnes’ green thumb is highly marketable.
Already, he is being wooed by other dispensary operations that want him to run their grow operations.
Barnes says expert growers can make “a good amount of money” — in the six figures — but he won’t discuss his salary.
Barnes and other industry experts say growers are hard to find in Arizona because the industry is in its infancy here.
Some growers are migrating here from California, Colorado, Montana and other states that have an established medical-marijuana industry.
Dispensary operator Mark Steinmetz said growing experts will likely find success as dispensary owners look to professionalize their operations and maximize output.
“It is basically an agricultural skill set,” he said. “You have to be part botanist, part farmer to know how to grow in some kind of volume. A lot of people can do it in small grows … but taking it to 1,000 plants is a whole different situation.”
It’s a skill that many are trying to learn.
For example, cannabis experts from Burbank, Calif., will teach about 50 participants in March how to tend buds as part of training sessions in Phoenix, said Calkin of the marijuana school. “In Arizona right now, there’s a great need for grow experts. Generally, we try to come to Arizona every couple of months.”
In an effort to repeal Arizona's controversial voter-approved medical marijuana law, a Fountain Hills representative wants to put the measure back on the ballot.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh on Thursday filed a bill to put the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act on the November 2014 ballot.
Arizona voters passed the act -- Proposition 203 -- in November 2010. The initiative "called on the Arizona Department of Health Services to create a medical marijuana program within 120 days from the official election results," according to the DHS medical-marijuana program page.
Expressing concern about the state medical marijuana law clashing with federal drug laws, Kavanagh wants voters to have an opportunity to rethink the program and decided if the measure should have been passed in 2010.
Kavanagh also cited the 2012 Arizona Youth Survey, which found that roughly 1 of every 10 Arizona school students in grades 8, 10 and 12 who reported recent marijuana use said they got it from a card holder.
More than 30,000 people have obtained cards authorizing them to use it for certain medical conditions.
The state chose 97 dispensary operators in August. At this point there are three authorized dispensaries up and running. The first one, Arizona Organix, opened in Glendale on Dec. 6. The other two are in Tucson (Southern Arizona Integrated Therapies) and Cochise (Cathy’s Compassion Center).
The law allows for 126 dispensaries throughout the state. Card holders who live within 25 miles of a dispensary are not permitted to grow their own pot.
While the Legislature would need to approve Kavanagh's bill to refer the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act back to the ballot, Gov. Jan Brewer's signature is not necessary.
Kavanagh, who represents District 8, has been a member of the Arizona Legislature since 2007. Before that, he spent six years on the Fountain Hills Town Council.
A state lawmaker wants to repeal Arizona’s controversial medical marijuana law, which allows people with certain medical conditions to legally grow, sell and use the drug.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, on Thursday filed a bill that would refer the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act back to the ballot in November 2014. House Concurrent Resolution 2003 would require the Legislature’s approval, but not Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature. The upcoming legislative session begins Jan. 14.
Kavanagh told The Arizona Republic that voters deserve the right to rethink whether the law, approved by voters in 2010, should have passed in the first place.
He said new findings that some teens were obtaining pot from medical marijuana cardholders “was the last straw.” That survey information was included in the biennial study by Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which found nearly one out of every nine students in Grades 8, 10 and 12 who responded to a survey said they got the drug from patients or caregivers who are legally allowed to use marijuana.
“This simply lets the voters rethink a decision they made on faulty — and absent —information,” Kavanagh said. “Nobody ever dreamed they’d (medical marijuana cardholders) be supplying schoolchildren.”
Arizona voters approved the medical marijuana law in 2010 by a narrow margin of about 4,300 votes.
“This measure barely passed at the polls … and people were misled to believe that its recipients would be cancer patients on chemotherapy and glaucoma sufferers — but now they represent a fraction of the users,” Kavanagh said.
Nearly 34,000 Arizonans are allowed to smoke or grow marijuana, according to the state Department of Health Services. Of them, 3.76 percent use marijuana to ease cancer symptoms; less than 2 percent cite glaucoma. The overwhelming majority — 90 percent — cite severe and chronic pain.
Kavanagh thinks he’ll have “overwhelming support” by the Legislature, which “was cool on the idea to begin with.”
Kavanagh, like many other Republicans, is also concerned that the state's medical marijuana law conflicts with federal drug laws.
Arizona's 2-year-old medical marijuana law is legal and is not preempted by federal law, a trial judge ruled Tuesday.
In an extensive ruling, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Gordon rejected arguments by Attorney General Tom Horne and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery that the voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act is void because the possession and sale of marijuana remain a federal crime.
In his decision, Gordon pointed out 18 states and the District of Columbia already have laws permitting some form of legal marijuana use. And the judge said he wasn't about to declare Arizona's own version invalid.
"This court will not rule that Arizona, having sided with the ever-growing minority of states and having limited it to medical use, has violated public policy," he wrote.
Most immediately, the decision should pave the way for a planned dispensary in Sun City to get the paperwork it needs to open. But the broad scope of the ruling, unless overturned, provides legal grounds for the state going ahead with plans to license more than 100 dispensaries around the state.
Both Horne and Montgomery vow to appeal.
Gordon acknowledged Congress enacted the Controlled Substances Act to combat drug abuse and to control the legitimate and illegitimate traffic of drugs. That law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug for which there is no legitimate medical use.
And the judge agreed the 2010 initiative allowing the medical use of marijuana reflects "a very narrow but different policy choice" about the drug. But he said the fact Arizona has a different view of the drug does not conflict with or illegally undermine the federal law: Federal agents remain free to arrest Arizonans who violate federal law.
Horne said that misses the point.
He said Arizona could decriminalize the possession of marijuana entirely, similar to what voters just approved in Washington and Colorado. That would leave it up to federal agents to decide if they want to charge anyone with violating the Controlled Substances Act.
But in this case, though, Horne said the state is actually authorizing the sale of marijuana.
"A state cannot authorize what the federal government prohibits," he said.
Horne said the Oregon Supreme Court, on the same point, found last year that Oregon's medical-marijuana statutes were pre-empted by federal law.
Gordon acknowledged that ruling, but said he sees no conflict. He said what voters approved in Arizona actually could be interpreted to support the goals of Congress in combating drug abuse.
"The Arizona statute requires a physician to review a patient's medical circumstances prior to authorization of its use," he said. Those without a card remain subject to arrest under state law.
Gordon also said the initiative also gives the state health department "full regulatory authority." That agency, in turn, has enacted rules to ensure dIspensaries operate within the law.
The 2010 initiative says people with certain medical conditions, and a doctor's recommendation, can get a state-issued identification card allowing them to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The most recent figures show more than 33,600 recommendation applications have been approved.
That law also envisions a network of up to 125 state-licensed dispensaries to grow and sell the drug to cardholders and their caregivers.
The state has given final approval to two dispensaries, one in Tucson and one in Glendale, though neither has opened its doors.
But the owners of White Mountain Health Center ran into a problem in Sun City: The health department requires that anyone seeking a dispensary permit must provide documentation that the site is properly zoned and Maricopa County officials, acting under Montgomery's advice, refused to provide the necessary letter.
Dispensary owners sued, asking Gordon to order the county to issue the letter.
The case before Gordon dealt solely with the license to operate a dispensary and had nothing to do with the ability of state workers to issue the ID cards to medical marijuana users. But Montgomery has said he believes that, too, violates federal law and intends to try to have those declared illegal - if he can get this ruling overturned.
The first medical marijuana dispensary in Arizona could open as soon as this weekend.
Officials from the Arizona Department of Health Services are expected to inspect Arizona Organix in Glendale Thursday morning.
They could be there for several hours, completing a nine page checklist that includes inspections of security, structuring, inventory control, patient records, and sanitation. If they don't pass, they can't open.
"We've got them pretty tightly regulated, both in terms of their operation, and in terms of how they interact with patients," said DHS Director Will Humble.
Currently, licensed medical marijuana patients can only get medication from caregivers, who grow it for them.
Dispensaries are similar, in sorts, to conventional pharmacies.
Arizona health officials want to strengthen the controversial medical-marijuana program to crack down on physicians who improperly recommend marijuana, train physicians who write most certifications and make it easier to revoke patient cards if health officials suspect wrongdoing.
Health officials also want to study how effective marijuana is in treating debilitating conditions, such as cancer, and examine whether marijuana affects opiate dependency, impacts vehicle-traffic injuries and impacts pregnancy outcomes and breastfeeding. Such studies would require changes to the law, which restricts the scope of information state health officials can obtain from physicians and patients.
The recommendations are contained in the state’s inaugural report of the medical-marijuana program, approved by voters in 2010 to allow people with certain debilitating medical conditions, to use marijuana. They must obtain a recommendation from a physician and register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers.
The new report covers April 2011 through June and includes for the first time, in a comprehensive format, a detailed breakdown of the types of physicians that are recommending medical marijuana.
During that time period, the Department of Health Services received 41,476 applications — both renewals and new submissions — and approved about 98percent. Because of the report’s time frame of more than a year, some cardholders may have been counted twice in that number —when they initially applied and when they renewed their annual card.
There were 29,804 total active cardholders reported, which included 28,977 qualifying patients and 827 caregivers.
Most patients cited one medical condition while less than a quarter reported two or more conditions. About 70percent of patients cited “severe and chronic pain” as their only medical condition.
The report states that 475 physicians recommended marijuana for the 28,977 patients. Ten of those physicians certified nearly half of all patients.
Eighty naturopaths, who combine traditional medicine and natural medical approaches to treat patients, certified 18,057 patients while 332 medical doctors certified 8,574 patients. Sixty-one osteopaths certified 2,329 patients and two homeopaths certified 17 patients.
State Department of Health Services Director Will Humble said he was disappointed that so few physicians were writing so many marijuana recommendations.
“I had hoped that we wouldn’t have this tight concentration of specialties who are writing these,” he said.
Humble said the numbers raise concerns that patients are seeking recommendations from “certification mills” instead of primary-care doctors who are generally more well-versed about individual patients’ medical histories. He said medical doctors may be less willing to write marijuana certifications because they didn’t study marijuana as a treatment in medical school.
Humble said the figures bolstered his belief that state health officials should develop intense training for high-volume certifiers, along with licensing medical boards to ensure physicians are not breaking the law. He also wants to be able to more quickly identify physicians who are improperly recommending pot.
Humble also wants to explore the idea of temporarily suspending patients’ cards if officials suspect wrongdoing and want to investigate. Currently, cards remain active until a final decision is made, “thus, providing immunity to potential misuse” of the law, the report says.
His agency will soon spend more than $1.2millionto, in part, weed out physicians who improperly recommend marijuana to patients as well as to help train marijuana-dispensary staff, hire private accountants or auditors to examine dispensary financial statements and hire private attorneys to assist the department with legal issues arising from the program.
The ADHS will also continue to fund a $200,000 contract with the University of Arizona College of Public Health to, in part, review published research about the effectiveness of marijuana in treating medical conditions.
Humble believes the expenses will help the state keep the medical-marijuana program as “medical” as possible.
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