Blazing Arizona

As Arizona’s medical marijuana law approaches full implementation, a facility in Phoenix dedicated to providing on-site, turn-key “grow tents” for cannabis caregivers makes preparations for an imminent statewide transition to fully licensed dispensaries.

By Elise McDonough

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of High Times

Tucked away in a nondescript business park north of Phoenix, the Compassion First Caregiver Circle opened in February 2012 and immediately allowed any caregiver approved by the state to rent a grow tent and begin cultivating medical marijuana. With expert guidance, state-of-the-art equipment and a supportive community all available onsite, the CFCC called itself the nation’s first medical-marijuana cultivation center and served as a patient advocacy organization as well as a do-it-yourself community garden (albeit one that happens to be located indoors, monitored 24/7 by security guards). The CFCC also promoted its third-party cultivation location as a model for the industry—one that allows caregivers to sleep soundly, free of worry about home invasions or theft, while providing a safe space for patients and caregivers to meet, network and share knowledge.

At the CFCC, each caregiver was responsible for a private 8’ x 8’ grow tent, complete with 600-watt high-pressure sodium (HPS) and T5 fluorescent lights, and divided into separate chambers for flowering and vegetating cannabis plants, 14 of which they could grow at any given time while remaining compliant with state law. Separated into six distinct bays, the 6,000-square-foot warehouse offered space for up to 45 caregivers, each growing for no more than five qualified patients simultaneously. In total, that meant the capacity to serve up to 525 patients, providing each with an eighth to a quarter of an ounce of cannabis per week, yielded from an ongoing perpetual-harvest system. The CFCC even opened a second location in South Phoenix with the capacity to house an additional 60 caregivers’ tents.
Chief operations officer John Ferrita explained the CFCC’s system: “Caregivers are handed a clone every Wednesday, and they are responsible for transplanting it, watering it and taking care of it all the way through harvest. Then they dry it for a week to two weeks and cure it after that. When it’s ready, the caregivers meet with the patients to make the transaction. So, truly, the caregiver does everything.”

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The CFCC, in turn, provided those caregivers with security, clones, equipment, premixed nutrients, an optimal indoor environment, a drying room, and on-call grow experts available to answer questions as well as identify pests or plant deficiencies. Caregivers cannot charge for their time or make a profit on the cannabis, which is sold at a fair market price—about $300 per ounce.

Founded, designed and operated by Scottsdale businessman and philanthropist Gerald Gaines, the CFCC cultivation center was outfitted by professional electrical and HVAC engineers with Honeywell systems to maintain optimal humidity and keep CO2 levels constant at 1,400 ppm. A 1,200-gallon reverse-osmosis system removed sediment and chlorine from the local water supply. And a master grower mixed huge batches of Botanicare Nutrient Systems CMS17 according to a color-coded system that designated a range of different nutrient tanks for the various stages of plant growth. All the caregivers had to do was measure out the correct amount and then water it into their plants, all of which were grown in coco to ensure against overfertilization.

Naturally, this kind of one-size-fits-all approach created challenges—for example, some cannabis strains require a different feeding regimen than others. But overall, the system was a successful example of a caregiver model with the potential to be copied and exported elsewhere—even as Arizona’s nascent medical-marijuana program is about to change fundamentally.

The Dawn of Dispensaries
Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Act, (the AMMA, also known as Proposition 203) passed by less than 5,000 votes in November of 2010 after facing all manner of official opposition from anti-drug zealots like Keep AZ Drug Free, county attorneys and sheriffs, the Chamber of Commerce and even hypocritical “states’ rights” Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who proclaimed during a press conference: “Don’t be bullied into believing this is about ‘compassion’ for sick people.”

Brewer went on to claim that “almost all marijuana recommendations come from a few doctors who, for say $150, will prescribe pot to nearly anyone”; she also warned that most cardholders would be teenagers. After Prop. 203 passed, Brewer sought to subvert voters’ wishes by filing a lawsuit seeking a federal judgment on whether state officials administering the medical-marijuana program could be at risk for prosecution by the Feds. Brewer also ordered the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) to reject all dispensary applications, stymieing implementation of the law and unintentionally creating the need for a caregiver model such as the CFCC cultivation center. In the meantime, over 25,000 citizens qualified to become cardholding patients, with people from 31 to 50 years old comprising 40 percent of all medical-marijuana users in Arizona—hardly the deluge of teenage stoners Brewer threatened voters with.

Fortunately, in January of 2012, US District Judge Susan R. Bolton dismissed Brewer’s lawsuit, writing that a “generalized threat” is not sufficient to merit a ruling about state law. Then additional legal pressure initiated by the CFCC in the case Arizona v. Compassion was successful in forcing the state to develop fair and equitable rules to award dispensary licenses. On August 7, the DHS chose 97 potential dispensary operators from a lotto. By September of this year, Arizona cannabusinesses could be up and running, including two new CFCC dispensaries in Fountain Hills and west Phoenix.

Medical-cannabis dispensaries promise patients the convenience of a retail experience—including choosing among a wide range of strains and medical products—but due to a provision in Arizona’s law, once the first dispensary opens in September, no new patients will be able to sign up with a cultivating caregiver, and existing patients and caregivers will be dropped from the system after their cards reach the 12-month expiration date. After that, no one will be allowed to cultivate their own cannabis if they live within a 25-mile radius of a dispensary. For the CFCC, that means the tents must be removed from its cultivation facility in anticipation of converting each 1,000-square-foot bay into a huge growroom to service the retail operations.

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“We hope to drive the price down and make cannabis affordable for all the patients in the state. That’s one of our long-term goals,” says Fertitta, while Marketing Director Jeff Milly is looking forward to the potential for “experimenting within each one of these bays with a different type of system, a different type of nutrient, different strains, until we find what’s most efficient out here in Arizona.”

Still, not everyone is looking favorably on the changes. Asked if dispensaries will serve patients better than the caregiver system, Kimberly Haslett, the president of the Southwest Arizona Patient Alliance, replied: “No, I like the collective model—it works very well. Our goal is to provide medicine to patients at the most compassionate price, and dispensaries aren’t necessarily going to achieve that goal …. But that being said, I am applying for a dispensary license, because I want to continue to serve my patients.”

CFCC Founder Gaines told the Arizona Republic that the biggest challenge preventing him from opening a dispensary could come from the governor’s office and Attorney General Tom Horne, who is also rabidly opposed to safe access. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has laid out a plan to dismantle the entire AMMA, turning patients back into felons. Montgomery told Capitol Media Services that “Once I get that ruling ... I’m going to turn around and issue guidance to law enforcement agencies ... that medical marijuana cards are no longer a defense to the personal possession, and that we will move forward and prosecute those cases.”
The vagaries of these legal changes will take some time to work out. In the meantime, activists continue to educate lawmakers and work for improvements in the AMMA. As Haslett explains, “The 25-mile rule is an issue right now—there’s a lot of patients and caregivers who want to get rid of that law, and they’re challenging it based on monopoly.” Another important legal issue is the current ban on cannabis concentrates and tinctures under a provision in the Arizona Criminal Code (ARS 13-3401, known as Title 13), aimed at combating so-called designer drugs such as “bath salts” and synthetic cannabis-like substances.

arizona IMG 4261Doug Banfelder, dispensary insurance specialist and founder of the Arizona Wellness Chamber of Commerce, an industry group created especially to promote medical marijuana, says: “In the AMMA, there is a clause that allows for mixtures and preparations, so that seems to show that there is anticipation under this law for these kinds of products …. There’s a move to kick it to the Pharmacy Board, which makes a lot of sense. Some people have been talking about filing an exploratory suit to see if the state courts agree with this interpretation of the law; the other alternative is to seek a legislative remedy next year. We are hoping to get cannabis removed from that list.”

Also, the DHS heard directly from patients and advocates in May during a hearing to determine if the AMMA should be expanded to include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and migraines as qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. More than two dozen people spoke up in favor of making the change, including the wife of a combat veteran suffering from PTSD. Another was Charise Voss, a 47-year old lifelong migraine sufferer who reported that medical marijuana changed her life.

“I have no side effects, and for the first time in my life I am pain-free,” Voss said. “I never thought I’d be here today to be an advocate for marijuana, but what we need is a choice.”