Arizona Compassion Club Helps Obtain Medical Marijuana for Qualified Patients

Want pot?

Are you one of Arizona's 6,000-plus, card-carrying, qualified medical marijuana patients? Or a valid patient from another state?

Join the club.

In a creative work-around to the state's lack of marijuana dispensaries, a group of card-holding patients are offering various strains of buds, edibles and tinctures in exchange for donations from club members. The Arizona Compassion Club operates out of several Valley offices, and the people running the clubs believe they're perfectly legal.

The group's Phoenix location at 2701 East Thomas Road has been open since mid-April, and the club's staff members say police have been inside several times, apparently without seeing any problems.

The club's activities appear to be authorized under the voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, as far as we can tell. The law states that qualified patients cannot face any penalty whatsoever for:

...offering or providing marijuana to a registered qualifying patient or a registered designated caregiver for the registered qualifying patient's medical use ... if nothing of value is transferred in return and the person giving the marijuana does not knowingly cause the recipient to possess more than the allowable amount of marijuana.

This is the sort of arrangement going on at Arizona Compassion Club at 2701 East Thomas Road in Phoenix, according to Nick Monte, one of the principle members. Monte gave us a card with his name on it that references several other statutes.

"We deliver!" the card also touts.

"I'm not worried," Monte says. "We're not doing anything wrong. There are thousands of patients out there. We're just trying to provide a service to patients."

The suite on Thomas Road, located in a complex with tax preparers, lawyers and other, more traditional office users, is a "safe, comfortable" place with a professional staff who are also patients, he says.

This is one sweet-smelling suite: The aroma of high-quality marijuana fills the air. There's a waiting room with a TV running a loop of pot-related videos and lists of plant varieties. A poster on the glass wall that separates another room contains various posters about the different strains and types of ailments they might help. In the other room are two tables where staff members discuss what's needed with patients and hand out the marijuana.

The club has two other locations: 123 East Baseline Road, Suite D206, in Tempe and 1307 East Southern Avenue, Suite 101, in Mesa.

Don't bother going to those offices looking for weed if you're not a bona fide patient. The staff checks the state-issued certification cards diligently, even using ultraviolet lights to make a hidden hologram on the cards glow.

The club charges $1 to join. Then, once a member, patients make donations and, as part of the benefits of being a member, can obtain medicine that's "gifted" from other patients. Staff members tells patients it's not a commercial transaction. At no point does the amount for each patient exceed the statutory maximum of 2.5 ounces.

Monte claims about 700 members with maladies ranging from Stage Four lung cancer to chronic and severe pain. Often, members thank the staff profusely for helping them reduce their intake of opiate-based prescription drugs, Monte says. In fact, some drug treatment facilities have even referred clients to the club, with the goal being to limit their addiction to hard drugs, he says.

"We're volunteers -- we work other jobs," says Bill Hayes, a staff member who's also the founder of an advocacy and instructional group called the Arizona Cannabis Society.

Similar clubs or even quasi-businesses in which patients sell to patients are cropping up in other places in the state, as can be seen from online advertisements. In addition to the club model, the state Department of Health Services Web site states specifically that qualified patients can obtain pot from other patients:

QP30: Where can I legally buy marijuana if I am a qualifying patient? Qualifying patients can obtain medical marijuana from a dispensary, the qualifying patient's designated caregiver, another qualifying patient, or, if authorized to cultivate, from home cultivation.

We blogged about a different patient-to-patient group that ran into trouble last week; we're still following up on that case, in which Gilbert police raided an office suite in Tempe.

With the dispensary business in Arizona on hold because of the anti-voter efforts of Governor Jan Brewer and state Attorney General Tom Horne, these services are filling in the supply gap for thousands of patients' demand.

Staff members at the Arizona Compassion Club say their medicine comes from now-legal sources. Qualified patients can grow up to 12 plants each, for example.

Some patients began growing before the state Department of Health Services began issuing cards that allow cultivation, evidently.

As for where to get those cards, which are always needed in order to legally obtain medicine: There's a place with a doctor on staff convienently located next to the Arizona Compassion Club's Thomas Road location called CSA Advocates.

It's unclear whether places like the Compassion Club are on firm legal ground.

"The fact that we know about (the Tempe location) doesn't mean they have our blessing," says Tempe police spokesman Steve Carbajal. "The donation part kind of makes it more of a gray area."

He's not willing to say what the club is doing is illegal or legal, he emphasizes. However, Tempe PD is "looking into a few places for some potential violations," he adds. "So many people are really walking close to that line of what's legal and what's not legal."

Carbajal wouldn't comment on whether the Arizona Compassion Club is one of the places facing possible police scrutiny.

Raiding such places seems like a bad idea on a number of fronts, though -- the main reason being that such a move would likely send hundreds of patients toward black-market dealers.

Brewer and Horne may have derailed the dispensary program for now.

But because of these clubs, patients now have an ostensibly legal alternative to dispensaries. In other words, the law is finally working as it should, albeit in a more scattershot, unregulated way.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern