It looks like any doctor’s office. There are no Bob Marley posters or blacklights on the walls, and the latest issues of Hightimes aren’t strewn across the coffee table.
But if you have a medical marijuana prescription, this might be the only place in Flagstaff for you to obtain the substance legally.
The Grassroots Wellness Center, which opened its doors last month, is owned by longtime Flagstaff artist David Grandon, who says his goal is to help sick people feel better.
The center offers a variety of health services and classes devoted to marijuana cultivation, cooking and legal issues.
In a state where dispensaries have been voted in but not implemented, Grandon is pioneering an untested legal area.
“We have our ducks in a row, but in the back of my mind am I still scared? Sure,” he said. “It’s very fast and loose right now, and I don’t like it.”
DISPENSARIES IN LIMBO
Six months after Arizona voters passed Proposition 203, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, legalizing medical marijuana, Governor Jan Brewer put the brakes on the new law by asking the federal government to say whether it would prosecute state employees processing applications for marijuana dispensaries.
A judge ruled earlier this month Brewer had no standing to ask for such a determination, and last week the governor said she would not appeal.
But a lawsuit over who should qualify to run a dispensary and the setting of state rules for dispensaries are expected to delay the opening of dispensaries by at least another year.
The law was designed to be rolled out in two phases. The first gave patients the ability to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to 12 plants in their home, as long as they live more than 25 miles from a dispensary.
It also enabled caregivers to grow and provide marijuana on behalf of a disabled patient.
The second phase was supposed to create around 125 not-for-profit dispensaries in predefined districts across the state to regulate the drug’s distribution. When implementation of the second phase was halted, thousands of patients were left to grow in closets, garages and spare bedrooms.
“You’ve got a governor and an attorney general who have been fighting tooth and nail against this law from day one,” said Flagstaff attorney Lee Phillips.
“It’s always been a federal crime, [but] no state employee has ever been charged, and no patients have ever been dragged out of their homes.”
Grandon is now utilizing an aspect of the law that allows patients to trade marijuana with each other as long as no money is exchanged.
At his Switzer Canyon Drive business, a medical marijuana card holder can pay a $110 per visit membership fee and have access to a range of classes and services and receive a quarter ounce of marijuana from another patient, often provided by Grandon himself.
“We are one of the sole legitimate resources for people,” Grandon said. “We’re empowering people by giving them opportunities. Medical marijuana is part of the picture, but it’s not the whole picture.”
Grandon originally had planned to apply for the dispensary lottery and had already raised the required $150,000. But he had to return the money to investors once the law’s fate became unclear. After that, he worked with Phillips to find a way to get marijuana to patients within the law.
“It’s easier and less scary for people to get their marijuana illegally,” Grandon said. “Our governor initiated this sense of fear because we passed Initiative 203 and now suddenly we can’t get it.”
BACK PAIN UNBEARABLE
This isn’t Grandon’s first venture into helping people with disabilities.
He and his wife used to organize social events, like dances and outdoor trips, for developmentally disabled adults, taking them on biking trips as far away as Albuquerque and riding to the Grand Canyon without touching pavement. For many in the groups, it was their first experiences traveling.
Then several years ago, Grandon’s back started hurting. The pain was tolerable at first but soon accelerated until he dragged his leg when he walked and had to stop riding his bike.
He tried all manner of naturopathic medicine but refused surgery and pain meds.
Eventually, he had to have surgery, but since Proposition 203 was passed, he’s taken to using marijuana to help control the pain, despite never having been a recreational user.
Grandon says many people turn to marijuana because they want to avoid the risks of opiate-type medications, like hydrocodone. The drugs can cause liver damage and are extremely addictive.
“The people who are coming to me aren’t looking for weed, they’re looking for something (to stop the pain),” he said.
CLASSES AND TALKS
Overcoming the “stoner” stigma is a major challenge for him. A massage therapist is available regularly, and state health workers come to talk to patients about things like living independently with disabilities and learning to live with visual impairments.
Phillips himself is volunteering his time to teach marijuana patients’ rights.
This month, the center will also host courses on learning to grow your own marijuana, and a local chef will show patients how to make marijuana edible with butter and oils, which is considered the ideal way to ingest the plant. In order to use the services, you have to be a medical marijuana cardholder.
A doctor is also often available for a fee to see people interested in applying for a marijuana card.
In December, Grandon invited Acting Flagstaff Chief of Police Kevin Treadway to visit his location so that he could explain what he was doing.
Treadway said that from a law enforcement perspective, it’s better to have a well-regulated dispensary than to have lots of individuals growing in their homes, which can create health risks from things like mold and fires caused by faulty wiring on grow lamps.
The chief said he was pleased to be invited over, but he still isn’t certain about Grandon’s operation from a legal standpoint.
“It may be there’s no legal problem with doing that, but that’s the question,” Treadway said. “We are in the process of setting up a meeting with the county attorney, city attorney and zoning officials.”
But Treadway says patients and caregivers in Flagstaff should have no reason to fear prosecution.
“A large part of our policy is to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Treadway said. “If you’re a qualified patient or caregiver, then you can be cultivating in your residence.”
AMONG MOST STRINGENT
Of the 16 states that allow patients to use marijuana, Arizona’s law is among the most stringent. It’s intended to cover patients suffering from major medical conditions like cancer, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C, Chron’s disease, Alzheimer’s and chronic pain, among other ailments.
If the dispensaries do move forward, which now seems likley, the Grassroots Wellness Center will apply to grow and distribute marijuana for the Flagstaff region.
But Grandon worries that with the amount of money involved, the dispensary role could fall to a large franchise like the ones that have taken criticism in California and Colorado for their lax rules and profits.
For now, he’s trying to grow his new business by reaching out to local patient support groups and medical centers. So far, only a few have returned his calls.
“They are a part of the Wellness Connection family. We will know the names and faces of every patient who comes here,” said DeKeuster. Patients will be encouraged to talk to one another.
“Isolation, loneliness and despair are too often a part of serious illness. We don’t want that for our patients.”
Maine is among 17 states that have legalized marijuana for sick people, but local governments are using their laws increasingly to restrict or outlaw them outright.
The law approved by Maine voters in 2009 jump-started a decade-old medical marijuana law by expanding the conditions under which people could be prescribed the drug.
The law allows three ways for eligible patients to take the drug: through dispensaries, from caregivers who also grow the pot under regulated conditions or from patients who also grow their own. Dispensaries’ marijuana is grown in undisclosed locations.
A medical marijuana user in Portland, who asked that his name not be used to protect his privacy given the controversial nature of the drug, said marijuana is very effective in reducing pain and eases the muscle stiffness he experiences due to his multiple sclerosis.
This makes getting in and out of the car, bathtub and his wheelchair much easier, said the patient, who has a caregiver so won’t need a dispensary.
“Medical cannabis has made a huge difference in my daily life,” he said.