What's Really Causing These Long Dispensary Lines in Phoenix?

"I don't expect the demand to level off at all," says Sam Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association.
"I don't expect the demand to level off at all," says Sam Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association. Jacob Tyler Dunn
Arizona cannabis customers, brace yourselves: The long lines you've been seeing at local dispensaries likely won't go away anytime soon.

Brace yourselves a little more: We're also heading straight into the brutal summer months.

Long lines have been a constant at Valley dispensaries since the first day of recreational sales in January. Some thought the crowds would begin to dissipate after a few weeks, once the novelty of being able to legally purchase marijuana wore off. But that hasn't happened.

"There’s been an incredible amount of pent-up demand," said Sam Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association. "I don't expect the demand to level off at all."

Operators in the Arizona cannabis industry attribute the phenomenon of long lines to a variety of factors.

For one, there's the public's sheer enthusiasm for marijuana. People are coming to dispensaries in droves. Even before Proposition 207 — the ballot measure that legalized the consumption and sale of recreational marijuana — was approved during the 2020 general election, medical marijuana sales were through the roof.

Then there's the fact that many dispensaries are maintaining social distancing and other pandemic-era protocols, despite Governor Doug Ducey's recent executive order repealing the remaining COVID-19 mitigation measures.

"I see the lines continuing probably towards the end of the year, in part because of social-distancing requirements and in part because the demand is still there," said Raul Molina, chief operating officer at The Mint, which runs dispensaries in Tempe, Mesa, and Phoenix. "There’s still the sexiness of coming into the dispensary, seeing it for the first time, purchasing for the first time."

He added that he doesn't want any of The Mint's dispensaries to be a "super spreader."

There's another, less-obvious factor at play, too, though. Some dispensary owners say that local government zoning regulations that restrict the square footage of dispensaries are producing customer traffic jams outside of the businesses. Phoenix currently limits the size of medical marijuana dispensaries to 5,000 square feet, while Chandler has kept the limit at 2,500. Tucson's cap was 4,000 square feet, but the city council recently approved raising it to 10,000.

James Christensen, the co-founder of Territory, which has dispensaries in Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler, said that the square footage restrictions are, in his view, the primary reason for the long lines. Fire codes also limit how many people can be in a given dispensary.

"Our lines aren’t because of social distancing and COVID," he said. "We’re in this unique pickle of balancing medical and respecting their desire for social distancing while catering to consumers that want to get in and get out ... It’s a numbers game — the sheer volume of people and limitations on the space."

"I think the problem is a cap at all," Christensen added. "Why don’t ammunition and fishing-rod shops have a limit? I pay all the taxes. I should be able to have a mega superstore. I have a license with the state."

Lindsay Schube, a land use and cannabis attorney based in Phoenix, said zoning restrictions date back to the early days of partially legalized marijuana in the state.

"All these size restrictions were placed on dispensaries back when the initial medical marijuana ordinance passed," she said. "The City of Phoenix was 2,000 square feet. There are still a lot of dispensaries in Phoenix that are 2,000 square feet. That’s the size of two Subway sandwich locations. That’s not big enough."

So, for the time being, cannabis consumers are probably going to have to put up with long lines at dispensaries. But with the unforgiving summer months quickly approaching, cannabis retailers are coming up with plans and programming to help customers stay cool, fed, and entertained.

Mint dispensaries will be constructing large tents with misters to help people in lines beat the heat, Molina said. Other operators are looking at bringing food trucks and large fans.

"Waiting to enjoy cannabis is never as fun as actually enjoying your cannabis, but folks are going to make it as enjoyable as possible. There will be cool spaces to wait, [get] food and entertainment as lines build up," Richard said. "It’s probably going to be in the mid-90s or over 100 by the time we get to April 20, and that shouldn't deter people from going out and making those purchases to enjoy the high holy holidays."
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Josh Kelety was a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety