Arizonans get COVID-19 vaccines in exchange for free marijuana joints and edibles

Meena Venkataramanan
Arizona Republic

When Mayra Flores heard that the Mint Cannabis Dispensary was offering free COVID-19 vaccines this week, she decided to drive from her Peoria home across town to the dispensary’s Mesa location to get vaccinated. 

Flores was directed Wednesday afternoon to a small storage building behind the dispensary that was once used as a medical marijuana certification clinic called Dr. Green Certs.

In a small green exam room once used to issue patients medical marijuana cards —before recreational marijuana was legalized in Arizona last year — the shot went in and out of Flores' left arm.

The dispensary is partnering with Commerce Medical Group this week to offer free, onsite vaccinations at its three Phoenix-area locations.

Those who are vaccinated at the clinics and are 21 years of age or older can receive a free pre-rolled joint and an edible cannabis gummy, an initiative the dispensary calls “Snax for Vaxx.”

The Mint is known for its grandiose publicity initiatives surrounding cannabis. On Friday, in celebration of National Doughnut Day, it will reportedly sell a doughnut containing 3,000 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element of cannabis. The doughnut contains roughly 300 doses of a 10-milligram edible.

Flores, 38, who works in a dental office, said she would have received the vaccine regardless of the Mint’s incentive, but the marijuana freebies “helped.”

“It was my day off, and I took advantage of the opportunity,” she said, adding that she is a regular customer at the Mint but usually shops at one of the other locations.

Raul Molina, chief operating officer of the Mint, said the dispensary first had the idea to offer vaccinations to its customers after a March event where it offered a free edible to anyone 21 or older who presented a COVID-19 vaccination card showing they were administered at least one dose of the vaccine. Right now, 46.5% of Arizonans have received at least one dose, according to state health data.

“We had a lot of people coming in and asking us, ‘I don't have (the vaccine), where do I get it,’” Molina said. “And that’s what led to this.”

Executives at the Mint, which sells both medical and recreational cannabis, initially assumed the company would have to pay for a third party to set up a mobile clinic on site and vaccinate customers. But they were pleasantly surprised to find out Commerce Medical Group would vaccinate individuals for free.

“Before we knew it was free, we had more intentions of picking customers of ours that maybe didn't have the money to do it, or needed it most, but haven't been able to get out there because of a ride or something like that,” Molina said. “And a lot of them come in to get their medication, so we figured we could kill two birds with one stone. We can help some of our patients out, hopefully some of the ones that need it the most.”

At Tuesday’s clinic at the Mint’s flagship location in Tempe, nearly 30 people received the vaccine, the majority of whom were receiving their second doses. On Thursday, at the north Phoenix location, Molina expects there will be even more vaccines administered. “At least in our clientele, there's a little bit more of an older crowd, and I think a lot of those people that haven't got it yet in the older crowd are looking to get it," he said.

The Mesa clinic on Wednesday mostly saw individuals who needed their first shot, according to Linzy Volm, a medical assistant from Commerce Medical Group who supervised the clinic.

Commerce Medical Group has so far held mobile clinics at three churches, another marijuana dispensary, and a local swap meet, she said.

Maricela Chairez, 46, of El Mirage, visited the Mint vaccine clinic with her two children Wednesday afternoon after a coworker told her about it. Chairez, who paints houses for a living, said she doesn’t use cannabis but wanted to receive the vaccine.

The pros and cons of cannabis-based incentives

Volm, the medical assistant at the clinic, said that while she believes the incentive-based vaccination model is a “good thing,” she is disappointed that “it’s come to this.”

“Why can't people just go get vaccinated?” she said. “Why do they have to be bribed? We never got incentives for getting the flu shot.”

Cannabis-based incentives for vaccination have become increasingly common around the United States.

Last month, Forbes reported that dispensaries across the country have offered marijuana freebies to those who can prove they’re vaccinated. But the initiatives have faced backlash.

“I got stopped outside the Tempe location yesterday and got called a ‘commie’ and that I was forcing people,” Molina, the Mint’s chief operating officer, said. “We're not forcing anybody. This is something for anybody who has been wanting to get (the vaccine) that maybe didn't have all the information. We’re not trying to get anybody upset with us. I think at the end of the day we’re doing a good thing.”

Pro-marijuana-legalization groups are largely supportive of cannabis-based incentives for COVID-19 vaccinations.

"With 7 in 10 Americans now supporting legalization and the growing number of states that have legalized the adult use of marijuana, there is little downside to these giveaways if they can increase vaccination rates,” Erik Altieri, the executive director of NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group, said in a written statement.

The Marijuana Policy Project said that cannabis incentives for vaccinations reflect the “growing acceptance for cannabis legalization among Americans and highlights the recent shift in state-level policies.”

“Not too long ago, Arizonans who were found in possession of cannabis faced criminal penalties. Now, cannabis is being used as a reward for making a sensible public health decision,” Violet Cavendish, the group’s communications manager, wrote in a statement. “The tides have shifted in Arizona and across the country. Now it's time for the federal government to take action."

Altieri compared free cannabis to other free incentives that businesses are using to motivate customers to receive the vaccine, including Krispy Kreme, which is offering free doughnuts to individuals who can prove they’re vaccinated.

“It is likely that free cannabis is a healthier reward than a free Krispy Kreme, but at the very least it will make that free Krispy Kreme taste all the better,” he said.

But Sheila Polk, the chair of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, an anti-marijuana-legalization group, denounced marijuana freebies initiatives as hypocritical.

“The marijuana industry continuously told us cannabis should be treated like alcohol,” she said in a written statement. “Yet, for good reason, liquor stores and bars can't hand out free drinks to people getting a COVID vaccine or any other medical treatment. It’s simply contradictory to promote something that protects your health by handing out an addictive drug like marijuana.”