The Pot Economy

The state is making prospective MMJ-dispensary owners jump through costly hoops

The aerie is a place of the past now, so I am hunkered down, listening to too many sirens and dodging too many broken bottles in the bike lanes and chronically getting a neck ache from the stress and stark realities of life and foraminal spinal stenosis.

It's a grim existence, in some ways, but there is a light: My pain will be eased in a big figurative way in August, when we will—God willing, and the governor don't rise—have medical-marijuana dispensaries sparsely peppered all over the state like fields of desert poppies. Ken Sobel, vice president of the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and operator of Green Halo Caregiver Collective on the westside, is ready.

Last year, shortly after the 2010 passage of the Medical Marijuana Act, the University of Arizona graduate and longtime Arizona and California attorney gathered like-minded friends around him and started gearing up. Sobel hopes to open dispensaries in five of the 10 Community Health Analysis Areas that are in or touch Tucson. It's no small undertaking.

Sobel owns one of the spots he plans to use—an RV storage lot near Prince Road and Interstate 10—and has already built it out to state specifications as a dispensary. The others were not so easy. There are square-footage and distance requirements—even the size of the reception area is specified. WTF? Why does The Man have to give a shit how big the lobby is? Dispensaries have to be at least 1,000 feet from schools or parks, and there are considerations for security and cultivation. Finally, the property-owners have to be willing to lease to dispensaries.

Despite the threat of federal seizure (mostly a vague, nagging threat, given the feds' actions in other states), finding landlords willing to lease has not been hard.

"I've had a really good experience with landlords," Sobel said.

Cultivation was another issue. The law says each dispensary can have two grow operations—one within 1,000 feet of the dispensary, and one anywhere. All cultivation sites have to meet the same state and local requirements as dispensaries, so the search for available properties is similarly limited. Sobel worked it out.

"We plan to open two cultivation sites for each dispensary license," he said.

Sobel and other potential dispensary operators need cash on the barrelhead—another state requirement. For each dispensary, $150,000 must be set aside to prove financial chops.

This bit really pisses me off. A lot. The state is forcing dispensary owners to deposit an escrow-like set-aside in banks—banks which then get a risk-free potential profit ride. Meanwhile, the folks who own the effin' money aren't allowed to profit. Fuck that.

I say let Sobel and all the other dispensary investors make some money. Isn't that what you want, Gov. Jan? People making money? I am asking you personally: Would you tell a bank, "Sure, you can do business here, but you have to be a nonprofit?" Ima say you wouldn't.

Anyway, the other startup costs total about $50,000, according to Sobel. So these people are pumping money into the economy. I've seen one of them hire a person, right before my very eyes. He gave her a job, Gov. Jan. A real job, and she was smiling.

Sobel got passionate about MMJ in 2003, when his mother-in-law died from cancer. A hospice worker suggested MMJ as a way to build appetite and ease pain. It worked. Then, in 2009, Sobel had a similar experience with his father here. When his dad died—two months after voters passed the AMMA— Sobel realized the property near I-10 could be a dispensary. And he took action.

Sobel is laying a lot on the line. He is openly advocating something a lot of people despise. He is risking his reputation as an attorney, though I suspect he cares little about the people who would cast aspersions. He is risking money.

Let's hope it all pays off in big ways for him and others like him—whether it's in karma, cash, soothed patients or smiles on faces of people with jobs.

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