Dispensaries that offer well-known strains of bud seen in California or other states could fall under suspicion yet still beat their competitors to the punch by offering a superior product.

Myers, of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, doubts that will happen on a large scale because the minimal product would fly off the shelves too quickly, leaving dispensaries bare. Many dispensaries will grow their own weed and begin full operations once the harvest comes in, he predicts.

It's not illegal under state law to buy seeds, even from online sources, he says. True, it's illegal federally — but so is the whole program.

High-quality marijuana buds line the shelves at Nature's Own Wellness Centers in
Colorado. Owner Travis Pollock plans to run a dispensary in Arizona.
High-quality marijuana buds line the shelves at Nature's Own Wellness Centers in Colorado. Owner Travis Pollock plans to run a dispensary in Arizona.

Myers says the intent of the law is to allow each licensed dispensary to grow pot in its store or at separate cultivation facilities. He's happy with the revised rules, which would let dispensaries that excel at cultivation sell their crop to other dispensaries. That, in turn, would allow some shops to offer "boutique" strains while still importing the bulk of their product. Such a "free wholesale arrangement" would better serve patients by ensuring a steady supply of weed, he says.

Running out of medical pot would be a real bummer for patients. But once Arizona has a good supply system in place, it might never happen again.

After state voters approved the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act in November 2008, the number of stores selling equipment to help grow pot there skyrocketed.

Relatively few grow shops operate in the Valley these days. The owner of one of them, who didn't want to be identified, says he's expecting an avalanche of competition. He wants to stay anonymous because he's worried the feds will come after him.

The rise of medical marijuana in Arizona is a double-edge sword, he feels, because it probably will increase both bottom-line sales and the risk of raids by law enforcement. It's not as though the grow shops are new to narcotics squads.

"The first rule of a grow club is you don't talk about the grow club," the owner says. "I don't want to be made an example of."

His lawyer tells him he could be charged by the feds with conspiracy if he openly discusses how to grow marijuana with a customer, even after the person becomes a qualified patient under state law.

(It may be impossible to predict what the feds will do, but Jordan Rose, the Scottsdale lawyer who's helping people set up dispensaries, says she's unconcerned about the possibility of a conspiracy charge, despite the fact that what she's doing could technically violate federal law. The State Bar of Arizona has approved lawyers representing Prop 203-related businesses. No such sanction has been given to grow shops.)

Russ Antkowiak, owner of Aqua Culture in Tempe, doesn't mind giving his name. His concern is people who come into his hydroponics store near Priest and Broadway asking how to grow marijuana. He doesn't talk to them when that happens, and he won't change his policy for medical pot cardholders.

"It's still illegal for me to promote growing something illegal," he says.

The front of his store contains brightly lit plants and beanbag-like pillows, since the space doubles as a showroom for his other business, The Pillow Shop. Trickling water from his displays of hydroponics trays make the place sound like a fish tank. For lighting, plants prefer high-pressure sodium or metal halide.

"This is a highly productive way of growing plants," he says. "It's a root-delivery system."

Using a few watts of electricity, recycled water, and surprisingly little space, the hydroponics trays near the front door are producing tomatoes — but also a lot of low, bushy plants. Thai basil, Antkowiak says. Structurally, the plant is very similar to marijuana.

Antkowiak expects more business and more competition this year because of Prop 203. And the feds? Antkowiak's been there, done that.

"I had the DEA come in years ago — come in with badges and guns," says Antkowiak, a mustachioed Vietnam vet. They wanted records of his customers and threatened to turn his place (then at a different Tempe address) into "Swiss cheese" if he didn't comply, he says. He didn't back down, and no charges were ever filed.

"People already are coming to me and saying they're looking at warehouses, etc.," he says. "It's been kind of like Realtor people, scouting out facilities."

Gus Escamilla, founder and CEO of Greenway University, says he expects thousands of people to attend his pot college, which will offer classes on running a small business, working behind the counter as a "bud-tender," and cultivating marijuana. In a touch of cross marketing, Escamilla says he also plans to open a hydroponics store.

Some local warehouses soon will be full of legal, high-grade pot, obviously. But the dispensaries and their hired growers will have to trust in the DEA's new non-interference policy.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, growing 99 plants could mean a prison term of up to 20 months. One extra plant triggers a mandatory minimum five years in the big house.

Sticking to 99 plants, though, would make it tough, it not impossible, for dispensaries to supply tens of thousands of clients.

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