Could Arizona Dispensaries Start Selling Recreational Pot Soon? Like, Really Soon?

Could Arizona Dispensaries Start Selling Recreational Pot Soon? Like, Really Soon?
Curaleaf Midtown

We know a few things about how the sale of recreational marijuana will begin in Arizona, following the successful effort to legalize it in November.

We know that Tuesday, January 19 — that’s tomorrow — is the day the state will begin accepting applications for licenses from businesses that wish to sell recreational pot.

We know that existing medical marijuana dispensaries are being prioritized and will be the first approved to sell recreational pot. (Many medical dispensaries will become dual-license holders, meaning they can sell both medical marijuana to cardholders and recreational marijuana to the general 21+ public.)

And we know that, per the law approved in November, the Arizona Department of Health Services has 60 days to issue licenses to qualifying dispensaries after the application window closes March 9.

Less clear is how long it might take the state to process those applications. That's why nobody yet has a firm answer on when exactly the average of-age individual will be able to walk into a shop and buy pot without a medical card. Given the information and these dates, many have concluded that recreational sales for the dispensaries at the front of the line could begin sometime in late March or early April. 

But what if ADHS starts approving applications immediately after they come in? Like, in the next few weeks here? Like, maybe even this week?

Robert Smith, general manager for Territory, which operates three medical dispensaries in the Phoenix area, tells Phoenix New Times that he's already had a few instructional training calls with the state regarding things like medical vs. recreational employment regulations — and that he got the sense in those calls that the state might be planning to push applications through much faster than many previously thought.

"They didn't tell us directly, 'You can do adult sales on this date,'" Smith says. "But the context of the calls had a sense of urgency that was conveyed in a variety of ways to us. The transferring of dispensary agent cards to facility agent cards, for example. It was emphasized that it needed to be done in very short order. I took that as evidence that they want to move quickly and are prepared to move quickly once the applications come in."

In a statement Friday, DHS spokesman Steve Elliott didn't shed any specific new light on how soon sales might begin, telling New Times, “ADHS has worked closely with the industry and has communicated that we have the systems in place to process and approve each complete application as soon as possible. There are other variables at work, including whether an application is complete when it reaches us, but we are ready for next Tuesday.”

Sam Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association, tells New Times he has no inside knowledge or expectation of an accelerated timeline. "I don't think it will take the department the full 60 days," he says. "But I think approval in April is just as likely as next week at this point."

Richard adds that there is likely a strategy behind the ambiguity. "For one, if they take out a billboard and say, 'Adult use begins Feb. 1,' that could potentially create 130 super-spreader events across the state," he says, referring to the rough number of existing medical marijuana dispensaries in Arizona.

Preparation on the part of the dispensaries is another concern. That includes stocking sufficient inventory and being able to properly staff shops on what are sure to be extremely busy days, but also compliance issues surrounding things like taxes and regulations.

Elliott also told New Times that approvals will be "first-in, first-out, not in one big batch." But that could mean many different things. If 100 dispensaries submit their applications tomorrow, it's conceivable the state is so well-prepared it will be able to process and approve all of them the next day. But it's also possible that each application will require significantly more time to approve, and we'll instead see a steady drip of licenses granted over the next few months.

Territory's Smith says hats off to the state if it's the former. "We probably want to start [recreational sales] as soon as possible," he says. "We're moving fast over here getting ready. Even if the water's a little cold, I don't mind being pushed into the pool." 
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David Hudnall is editor in chief of Phoenix New Times. He previously served as editor of The Pitch in Kansas City.
Contact: David Hudnall