Medical Marijuana: Prop 203's Passage Means a New Billion-Dollar Industry for Arizona

In Arizona, you can ride a motorcycle without a helmet, conceal a handgun, and buy an AK-47. And soon, if you qualify, you'll be able to smoke a big, fat doobie. Legally.

Proposition 203, the state's new medical-marijuana law, passed by the slimmest of margins once all the votes from the November 2 election were finally counted. But it passed by 4,341 votes, and now Arizona is on the verge of establishing a billion-dollar pot industry.

The official canvass of votes from the election will take place on November 29, and the state Department of Health Services has 120 days from that point to create reasonable regulations for marijuana stores, known as dispensaries. (In other states, clerks behind the counters of such places are called "bud-tenders.") No more than 20 days after that, the DHS must begin accepting applications from "patients."

What all this means is that in a few months, card-holding pot users will be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at any given time.

Cops will be prohibited from arresting these patients for their weed. And companies that require urine tests will be prohibited from discriminating against card-holding workers or applicants simply because they tested positive for marijuana.

Cardholders may begin growing up to 12 pot plants immediately, indoors, as long as no dispensaries are open within 25 miles of their residences. If a store is within that range, the patient can no longer grow his or her own but can buy up to 2.5 ounces every two weeks.

This won't be Southern California, with more dispensaries than Starbucks. Only one dispensary for every 10 pharmacies is allowed. For now, that means a statewide total of 124. But that's plenty.

The stores will carry different strains of high-potency sativa and indica buds, plus products made from marijuana, such as hash and a smorgasbord of edibles — including brownies, cookies, "space cakes," and weed-based drinks. These are the same sort of products on the shelves of dispensaries in California and Colorado.

You won't be allowed to smoke, eat, or drink the marijuana on the premises of a dispensary, though. The law prohibits smoking in "any public place."

The law won't just benefit people who qualify as patients. It will benefit every taxpayer in this cash-strapped state.

Before the election, Republican Governor Jan Brewer criticized the measure, predicting "compassion quickly will turn to capitalism."

As if that would be a bad thing.

Under Prop 203, current marijuana dealers, including those with links to drug cartels, will lose customers to licensed dispensaries — which can sell weed grown only by state-monitored cultivators.

The loss for the black market will be a boon for the state's economy.

Prop 203 will create jobs: "Pot grower," "pot dealer," and "space-cake baker," for example, are destined to be legitimate professions in Arizona. All dispensary pot must be grown indoors, meaning more sales for local sellers of grow lights and hydroponics equipment.

Spin-off work from the industry already is putting money in the pockets of lawyers, marketers, Web site technicians, real estate agents, and other business-service professionals.

The gross revenue of pot sales alone could easily top $1 billion a year in Arizona.

If this is the United States of Amerijuana, as a recent Time magazine cover declares, then welcome to Mari-zona.

Before the DHS issues its regulations and begins accepting applications, there'll be public hearings and backroom discussions by bureaucrats, politicians, and representatives of the new industry.

Much has been published about how strict Prop 203 is compared to similar laws in California, Colorado, and the 12 other states that have passed medical-marijuana laws. But there are good reasons to believe that Prop 203 will become the free-for-all that opponents warned against and proponents hoped for.

DHS Director Will Humble projects that about 100,000 people a year will apply for medical marijuana cards. He and other opponents of 203 claim that all sorts of people — young and old, seriously ill or not — will qualify for the cards.

If regulation goes too far, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Association, a group of Prop 203 backers and would-be owners of dispensaries, stand ready to sue. And they'll be armed with a powerful state law: the Voter Protection Act.

In 1996, voters passed Arizona's first medical-marijuana measure, called Proposition 200, by a 2-1 margin. Conservative lawmakers promptly gutted the bill.

In response, angry voters came back two years later and approved the Voter Protection Act ballot measure, which prohibits state legislators from changing a voter-approved initiative without a three-quarter supermajority.

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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.