10 Things Medical Marijuana Won’t Tell You (Jen Weiczner, MarketWatch)
5. “You’re not paranoid. They’re out to get your money.”
Last month, two men were shot and killed in a medical marijuana dispensary in Bakersfield, Calif. Just a couple of weeks earlier and 100 miles to the south, a police officer was wounded in an attempted robbery of a dispensary in Los Angeles County. In May, two men robbed a San Diego marijuana dispensary at gunpoint.
Medical marijuana continues to make crime headlines in states that have legalized it, and robberies can be particularly frequent. Industry analysts argue that it isn’t necessarily the marijuana that attracts criminals to the dispensaries, but the stacks of cash on hand: Banks won’t do business with dispensaries — since doing so could jeopardize their FDIC insurance — so the shops can’t process credit card transactions or open checking accounts. “They end up having a safe in the back with all this cash,” says Riffle.
Areas with a greater number of dispensaries, however, aren’t correlated with higher rates of crime, according to research by the University of California, Los Angeles. The study’s early results even suggest that dispensaries draw less crime than bars, though principal investigator Bridget Freisthler, a social welfare professor at UCLA, cautions that it’s too early in the project to tell for sure. The researchers are still investigating whether crime increases over time after a dispensary moves into a neighborhood. “There’s concern that the businesses themselves are going to be targets, but also the patients as they enter or leave the dispensaries,” Freisthler says.
8. “There’s a dispensary in the bathroom of this dispensary.”
States might have anticipated that legalizing weed would cause stores selling it to sprout up like, well, weeds. But the industry has grown so fast, local governments have struggled to keep track of all the businesses, and dispensaries have been caught in the middle of political battles, even in cities with the friendliest laws. Denver, for example, recently released a report admitting that officials don’t actually know how many medical marijuana businesses are within city limits: While the city counted 739, state records showed 676, and a spokesman for the city says it believes the true number is closer to 500. “This is a place where there’s more pot shops than Starbucks,” says Bierman, the dispensary consultant. (Indeed, there are only 415 Starbucks locations in the entire state of Colorado, according to the company’s latest annual report.)
Local officials worry that such rapid growth will lead to widespread use by individuals without a prescription. The UCLA study, in fact, found that the more medical marijuana dispensaries and delivery services a city has, the more its residents use marijuana—regardless of whether they have a medical reason. Some dispensaries, UCLA’s Freisthler says, will sell pot by the quarter-pound — a quantity that is four to 30 times the amount patients typically buy (an eighth-ounce to an ounce) and worth as much as $1,000 or more. (Neither shops nor doctors issue guidelines on how much pot to use at a time and how frequently.) It’s a pattern that has also been observed with alcohol: “More liquor stores and bars increase problems related to alcohol use,” Freisthler says.
While cities like Los Angeles have tried to crack down on the number of dispensaries, with moratoriums and shutdowns, the ongoing tug of war hasn’t scared many people in the business, who don’t believe the regulations are enforceable: “Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing through this, and it’s impossible to put it back in the bag,” Bierman says.
9. “But our storefronts are practically invisible.”
Among the reasons marijuana dispensaries are so difficult for cities to keep count of are that some operate without licenses, some masquerade as another type of business, and some simply go out of business. Even medical marijuana industry associations say they can’t keep a national tally on shops. And some industry insiders like it that way.
Fears of law enforcement and patient demand for discreetness top the list of reasons. But there’s also the tax angle to consider: Dispensaries often face tax rates up to double what other businesses pay, so some may underreport their income, says Riffle at the Marijuana Policy Project. And some pretend to be, or double as, say, spas or health food stores, so that they can deposit their cash in a bank and process credit card transactions, says Denis Berckefeldt, Denver’s director of government relations.
Dispensaries disguise their appearance in many ways, with some so unassuming that only insiders can find them. Bierman, the dispensary consultant, says some states require that shops look like medical clinics. Elsewhere, they may have blacked-out windows or be labeled with green crosses (like green versions of the Red Cross logo), the industry’s version of a pharmacy symbol. Still others resemble traditional neighborhood saloons, says Freisthler. One Hollywood dispensary, for instance, advertises that it specializes in “healthy alternatives” to smoking, including electronic cigarettes, organic e-liquids and vaporizers, but “it really sort of felt like a laid back corner bar,” she says.
On the other hand, several states with legal medicinal marijuana have few stores that sell it, or none, Bierman says. Eight of the 20 legalized states don’t even allow dispensaries, including Michigan, Oregon and Maryland. In those states, “patients are just legally protected to use the marijuana, [but] there’s no legal way to obtain the medicine,” says Nicolazzo, of MarijuanaDoctors. People have to either grow the marijuana plants themselves or appoint a grower known as a “caregiver” to provide it for them. “A 65-year-old patient isn’t going to know how or be able to grow their own plants,” he adds.