It’s been almost a century since America was swept by reefer madness, the craze of anti-marijuana rhetoric that connected “pot smokers” to violent criminal tendencies, and about 40 years since the country was first told to “Just Say No.”
Those who smoked weed were labeled as degenerate, hippy, lazy people. A video of an egg cooking on a frying pan depicted a brain on drugs, and the sound of it sizzling sought out to scare a nation.
When the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed by President Richard Nixon, marijuana became classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, meaning that it is considered to have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse.
While marijuana was a centerpiece during the 1969 “summer of love” and had already been a part of popular media with acts like Cheech and Chong, it wasn’t until 1996 that marijuana gained its first legislative credibility. California passed Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, permitting the use of medical cannabis.
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Since then, 37 states have adopted their own take on weed jurisdiction, with 19 states only providing medical use and 18 that have fully legalized cannabis use for adults 21 and older.
Arizona, circa 2010, passed Proposition 203, which allowed for medical sales to take place within state borders.
In the first year of sales, a total of $40 million was generated from the marijuana industry (including edibles). At the time, the figure ranked Arizona in the top five largest medical marijuana markets in the United States.
Then, in 2020, Proposition 207 was proposed and approved to extend marijuana sales for recreational adult use, a move that garnered much controversy at the time but was promoted as a way to promote further the bolstered economy seen from the first few years of legal medical sales.
Dispensary owners who were operational pre-Prop 207 felt an even bigger boom was bound to happen, and owners and staff prepared accordingly.
Those predictions were correct, with the Arizona Department of Revenue reporting more than $1.23 billion in combined medical and recreational cannabis sales through the first 11 months of the year.
Arizona saw an enterprising market arrive in 2021 in the field of recreational weed. Proposition 207 passed with a 60-40 split in favor.
Starting in 2010, medical marijuana had been legal in Arizona, so it wasn’t a fresh concept for the agenda. In fact, recreational weed legalization was a bill that had technically been in the works since 2016 with Proposition 205. That bill, however, was narrowly defeated, 52-48.
What was emerging, though, was an attitude shift surrounding cannabis. Perception from Arizona public officials was widely anti-weed in the past, but that changed in recent years. In 2016, former State Representative Paul Gosar was one of the more outspoken abolitionists on the topic.
“As a healthcare professional, I oppose Proposition 205 and the legalization of recreational marijuana as it would cause major public safety risks, endanger Arizona kids, and protect a commercial industry that profits from expanded drug use,” Gosar said at the time. “Why would we allow Arizona to be Big Marijuana’s next victim when we can point to the catastrophic impacts of legalized recreational marijuana in neighboring states?”
In the four years between election cycles, more data was gathered from neighboring states who adopted recreational weed use and those claims of public safety risks were seemingly unfounded in places like Colorado, which arguably spearheaded the recreational cannabis movement.
The data showed that while marijuana use among adults increased, the rate of DUIs, adolescent use and drug-related hospitalizations decreased across the board.
Marijuana was also proving to be a money-making machine. In 2019, Colorado hit a record $1.75 billion of revenue generated from medical and recreational weed.
With that information in mind, Arizona officials saw promise in the landscape and changed their tune.
Flagstaff’s own Noble Herb (previously named Greenhouse) is one of three dispensaries in the area. In late 2020, it saw the writing on the walls and braced themselves for what co-owner Ryan Hermansky described was expected to be a “big, big year.”
“Once it [Proposition 207] was passed, we immediately put things in place to make sure we got ahead of it,” Hermansky said.
It included adding more “budtenders” — the employees helping customers navigate the products and provide expertise — as well as more registers for express online ordering.
Online ordering, Hermansky says, is the the biggest accommodation Noble Herb has made for customers who shop for recreation marijuana.
“There are still window-shoppers and people who want to browse our inventory and just get a feel of the place,” Hermansky said. “But there are customers who treat it like an errand and want to just get in and out with their purchase. From what we’ve seen, that has been primarily our ‘rec’ patients.”
Hermansky said overnight they went from 10% of total sales being online orders to about 40% — and that number has stayed relatively constant.
However, such figures reveal a worry for some who feel that the ease behind purchasing marijuana in an express online format contributed to a lack of education behind the product — which could lead to customer confusion.
A tenured budtender and brand ambassador for a THC concentrate company who asked to remain anonymous feels that improved education toward marijuana would definitely lead to higher customer satisfaction.
“If someone is just trying to have fun, we can get them that way, but if they’re actually going through chemotherapy or need it for medicinal uses, I can guide them that way,” they said. “But first they have to know what they’re looking for and a lot of the time, they don’t.”
The subject recalled coming from a very religious Mormon community growing up, where weed was stigmatized and associated with the “bad kids.” They themselves adopted that philosophy and abstained for most of their adolescence. Until senior year of high school, they experimented with weed for the first time with friends, gaining a new perspective on the drug as a whole.
A baseball injury that led to chronic shoulder pain allowed them to obtain a medical marijuana card of their own. At the age of 19, they said, they learned the difference between medicinal use and recreational use.
“It’s really important to keep the medical side medical and the ‘rec’ side ‘rec.’ It does do different things. I know you get so many benefits from the ‘rec’ side of things, but the medical patients really need that. It is medicine,” the subject said.
By law, there is a distinction between what can be sold to recreational customers and what can be sold to medical patients. While a medical patient can purchase up to two and a half ounces every two weeks, recreational cannabis consumers can only purchase up to one ounce. Medical products also favor a higher dosage of CBD and THC (the primary active components of marijuana) while recreational products are more regulated with lower dosages.
Hermansky believes, though, that this distinction is necessary so as not to overwhelm new recreational customers with too strong a substance.
“The last thing we would want is for someone to take too high of a dose,” Hermansky said. “We’ve all been there.”
Hermansky is also the co-founder of Pure Edibles, a full-spectrum concentrate manufacturer that specializes in chewy, gummy, candy-like treats for the marijuana consumer who prefers to eat their cannabis instead of smoke it.
To prevent the risk of dosing their customers too high, Pure Edibles makes many products in their lineup designed with a tear-away perforation down the middle to control dosage.
While taking small measures like those may portray players in the marijuana industry as being responsible and aware of possible risks, some oppose the sweet-tasting options altogether over fears that the colorful packaging and flavors could entice children and lead to adolescents unwittingly consuming marijuana.
While stories have been published in the past regarding those accounts, Hermansky remains sound in his beliefs that his products don’t pose a threat. He said if anything, the scrutiny over this matter has made edibles safer than ever before.
“All of our products, like our tins right there for edibles, are in a child-resistant container. So, you know, we go above and beyond to make sure it’s not getting in the hands of kids,” Hermansky said. “There’s no child-resistant products on the black market. I think what dispensaries have done and what Proposition 207 has made sure is that these products are safe because they’re tested –– because it’s regulated. There’s a lot of eyes from the Department of Health on us as well.”
Hermansky said that while there will always be skeptics and critics, the long-standing stigma that marijuana has had in the past is quickly fading away.
“Ten years ago when we got our license, you weren’t comfortable telling everybody what you did for a living. And now, I mean, that’s certainly changed. I think the conversations are exciting now; I find more people are absolutely fascinated with what I do,” Hermansky said.
Still clearing the smoke
Another budtender in the area (also contractually obligated to remain anonymous) has been in the marijuana industry for three years and says what makes them happiest now since adult use became legal has been the larger diversity of people who walk in to shop or ask questions to staff.
It’s not just medical patients, so customers from all walks of life stop by — which is this budtender’s favorite part–– assessing needs and providing new and inexperienced patrons with a cultivated product.
“I see people over the age of 50 coming in saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for this day since I was 17, I can’t believe this is happening,’ and seeing their curiosity and excitement is the best. It helps me get through the day,” they said.
However, while Arizonans in the industry have noticed considerable upsides following legalization, such as increased revenue for the state and a brand-new user base, some dispensary workers feel there is still a ways to go before the laws are satisfactory.
For instance, obtaining a dispensing license in the first place is a complicated enough process to be discouraging to many interested in starting.
In Arizona, hefty application fees are required up front, ranging from $5,000 for a medical license and $25,000 for a recreational license. Proof of residency of at least three years and a pre-assembled board of directors is also a must. Even with those stipulations, a license is not assured: The final step is to put your name into a lottery and wait for it to be drawn by the Arizona Department of Health to be approved.
If all goes to plan, the cost of opening a cannabis dispensary can still range from $150,000 to $2 million. That includes key costs of around $250,000 for annual staffing, $100,000 in yearly rent and $50,000 for up-front renovations.
The budtender said these expenses make it so that the industry is led by people who are already rich and able to risk the money on a venture not guaranteed to work, exempting entrepreneurs with a real passion for the industry who don’t have the financial means to get in.
That obstacle is one that dispensary workers and owners hope to see the field overcome.
“Socioeconomically, we know who can afford that. It’s very hard to make it and have that American dream; even if you have a passion for it, you probably won’t be able to open your own,” the anonymous worker said, a notion they declared a “shame.”
Hermansky also wants to see the doors to the cannabis industry open to a “wider range of entrepreneurs,” but, as an owner, his biggest problem with the industry is the legal limbo he finds himself in with the federal government.
Marijuana is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug, creating roadblocks in terms of Hermansky’s financial legitimacy.
“It would be amazing to have the ability to go get a normal loan,” Hermansky said. “Something like a SAFE Banking Act seems more probable than any sort of full-form federal legalization. A SAFE Banking Act would be tremendous for the industry. It would let us compete like a normal business.”
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is a bill that would allow marijuana businesses that operate legally within their state to be federally recognized by banks. The passing of the bill would open up dispensaries to better loans and safer practices, such as removing them from a cash-only model — a situation that leaves dispensaries vulnerable to robberies.
As for the future, what will happen to the industry is still uncertain, though it “looks promising” to Hermansky.
A saying in the “canna-business” is that “one year in weed is like five years in any other” because of the rapid growth already seen in states across the board. Hermansky hopes to keep on that track and continue reaching out to those who find themselves skeptical about trying marijuana all these years later.
“[In 5 years] I think the negative stigma will be gone. That’d be my biggest hope,” Hermansky said. “Federally and all that stuff, I have no idea what would happen, but I think at a minimum it will be accepted as a normal business and a normal product. And I think more people will just see the positives of it.”
The anonymous Flagstaff budtender said they have a dream to open a “safe house” where users can commune and collaborate on artistic and personal projects aided by a shared interest in marijuana, inspired by similar establishments in Amsterdam or Colorado.
They believe that if Arizona wants to be at the forefront of the weed industry, there needs to be more investments made into weed-related ventures.
“There’s so much opportunity that people don’t think of when marketing towards stoners,” the worker said. “Stoners like the novelty of it all –– smoke and paint, smoke and build a fort, whatever. Not only would it bring people together, but it could change the stigmas, too.”
The cannabis industry is fully ablaze in Arizona and doesn’t show signs of slowing down soon. Only time will tell what comes next for this budding business but, if the trend continues, confidence in marijuana’s viability will only become higher.