How Recreational Legalization Is Affecting Medical Marijuana Patients in Arizona

How Recreational Legalization Is Affecting Medical Marijuana Patients in Arizona
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Arizona celebrated its first month of recreational marijuana sales yesterday, and there's much to cheer. More than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries have been cleared to sell recreational marijuana to customers 21 years and older, and business is booming. Drive past a Valley dispensary in the middle of the day, and there's a decent chance you'll still find a line outside the door.

For longtime marijuana shoppers in Arizona — MMJ patients, that is — there's been less to celebrate. Ironically, many of them feel that legalization has made marijuana less accessible for them.

One gripe: those lines.

"I should not see young, able-bodied folks coming in and out of a dispensary while there are folks in wheelchairs and using walkers waiting in line," says James Carter, a medical marijuana patient in Mesa.

Some dispensaries, still adjusting to balancing medical and rec sales, have begun implementing new policies that aim to prioritize patients. Many Harvest locations have a special window for medical patients. Territory Dispensary has implemented a cashless, pre-pay system for online orders called TreezPay that expedites the pick-up process, cutting down the amount of time customers have to spend in the store. Raul Molina, COO of The Mint dispensaries, recently told Fox 10 that their goal is to serve medical patients within 10 minutes and recreational patients within 30 minutes.

Herbal Wellness Center has implemented patient-specific shopping hours, from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. every day. Only those with a medical card can shop during these hours; at noon, the dispensary opens to the general public. The dispensary also offers online ordering exclusively for patients and daily medical patient-only specials.

“We do try to take care of [patients] first and have a side of the dispensary dedicated to rec patients,” said Scott Pierce, head of retail at Herbal Wellness Center. “We just want to make sure that the medical patients get their medicine and that those coming for recreational sales have a great experience too.”

Another complaint: the price specials that have long made medical marijuana affordable for patients have disappeared from local dispensary menus.

“Some of the more generous first-time patient deals aren’t available anymore," says Oscar Hernandez, a local MMJ patient.

Gone, too, are several other incentivized discounts, such as birthday, veteran, and senior discounts. Hernandez also noted that dispensaries often used to offer half and full ounces in bulk at significantly discounted rates, but those deals have become harder to find since recreational sales began.

Some of these specials have crept back onto menus in the past week or so, including bulk deals at Sol Flower and other, non-first-time-patient deals at SWC Tempe. Krystal Poleon with SWC Arizona says, “We have made it imperative to keep the medicinal needs of our consumers a top priority.”

But access to edibles remains a concern for some. Under Arizona's new regulations, recreational edibles can be no more than 10 mg per piece, and a package of edibles can contain no more than 100 mg.

Michelle Mastin worries about her mother, who has chronic pain. She uses higher potency medical edibles (200 mg gummies) for sleep and relief. But she's concerned that dispensaries might shift their focus to 100 mg edibles, since they can be sold both medically and recreationally, thereby leaving her mother without access to the stronger medicine she has come to rely on.

“I think medical patients are afraid that the market may get too saturated and some of their trusted products may get lost in the water,” Andrew Barnes, an Arizona MMJ patient for five years, says.

At the same time, there's hope that the Arizona market could expand to include new options for patients.

“I hope that there’s more accessibility to different varieties of things like they have in Colorado," Mastin says. "I would be very interested in trying other things for [my mother] to help her throughout the day for her pain management. I would hope that now that it’s legal, more businesses would bring new product to the dispensaries.”

Pierce at Herbal Wellness Center says MMJ patients shouldn't be overly alarmed about first-month hiccups.

“Our priority will always be the medical patients — they’re the ones that have been there with us since the beginning," he says. "We have dedicated ourselves to making them a priority." 
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