Medical-Marijuana Warehouse Brings Pot Growers Together to Serve Patients' Needs

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The freedom to grow marijuana granted by the state's 2010 medical-pot law is blossoming along with the plants in an El Mirage warehouse.

Bill Hayes, founder of the Arizona Cannabis Society, invited New Times inside last week for a peek at their operation. (See our slideshow of the tour here.)

A couple of years ago, this marijuana nursery would have been kept top-secret by growers who risked going to prison for it. But because of the successful passage of the 2010 Medical Marijuana Act, those growers are now gainfully employed in a legal business.

Hayes had no problem with New Times publishing the company's address. (It's 8376 N. El Mirage Road.) Nor did he mind if we let readers know that, by overseeing a crop of high-quality pot, he's just doing what he's done illegally for much of his life.

Following a probation violation stemming from his third bust, he was sentenced to a year in prison.

"I spent that year at the law library," says Hayes, 36. "I refuse to stop growing pot."

These days, no one's making him stop. Under Arizona law, as a qualified medical-marijuana patient, he can legally grow 12 plants. Employees and volunteers at the collective are patients themselves, and some are registered caregivers, meaning they can grow 12 plants for each of five patients.

The interior of the warehouse is brightly lit from the overhead lights, and fans help keep the "girls" cool. (Male plants, which contain less of the active ingredients, are always weeded out.)

Staff members wear jeans and T-shirts. A guy in a knit-cap carefully clips dead leaves from plants flowering with crystallized calyxes. Another prepares a concoction of marijuana concentrate on a folding table. A pregnant woman weighs small amounts of dried marijuana on a scale.

No one would mistake the place for a Pfizer lab.

But if anyone doubts the quality of AZCS' products, Hayes has the scientific lab results that show the percentage of active ingredients and lack of pesticides or harmful chemicals.

Reflective wall-coverings are white or silver -- Hayes says the makers of those products and other items used by the collective, like grow-light companies, sometimes donate things to the AZCS for evaluation and review.

Some of the "Mother plants" have trunks like small trees and top out at more than 10 feet high. Each has reliable qualities -- a certain flavor, scent, potency, or a propensity to ease a particular medical ailment. From the mothers come the clone-clippings and seeds used to grow more plants. Clones can be producing harvestable buds in about 12 weeks, the AZCS staff says.

For "donations," Arizona's 20,000-or-so registered medical-pot patients can obtain clones, seeds, or whole plants. Smokeable marijuana, tinctures and edible products are distributed to patients, and the collective goes so far as to advertise the prices for various strains online.

AZCS also holds itself up as a center for medical-marijuana education and activism. The company brings together cultivation experts who offer advice -- or sell equipment -- to those who can grow legally under state law. Patients and caregivers learn about their rights, as well as employment opportunities in the industry.

To comply with Arizona law, Hayes says, the LLC is run like a non-profit. He's proud to show off pictures of the truckloads of toys the AZCS gave to needy children during the holiday season.

Hayes says he invited the news media into the grow-operation because he wants to be "transparent" with the public. He believes the more that Americans hear that marijuana can be used as medicine, the better.

Despite President Obama's crackdown on medical marijuana and the fact that growing marijuana remains illegal under federal law, places like the Cannabis Society -- plus legions of individual patients growing on their own -- are pushing ahead.

The feds haven't yet clamped down on Arizona's medical-marijuana scene, though they've threatened to prosecute business owners and even government employees in some states. Here, the federal government helped get Governor Jan Brewer's anti-pot lawsuit dismissed.

For now, the biggest threat to Arizona-registered pot growers is the expected rise of dispensaries. Following two court orders, the state Department of Health Services has begun finalizing rules that will allow would-be dispensaries operators to apply for state licenses.

Dispensaries could be open as soon as July or August. When they do open, they'll trigger a provision from Proposition 203 that requires patients and caregivers within 25 miles to switch off their grow lamps and obtain their medicine only from dispensaries.

Hayes has filed a federal complaint, hoping a judge will strip that provision from the law.

But like any good entrepreneur, he's covering his bases.

He's got the business plan all ready for the dispensary he plans to open at the El Mirage warehouse. He's just waiting for the state to start taking applications.

One way or another, Hayes figures, growing marijuana is his future.

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