The applications were in, the photo backdrop had been unfurled, and the media was gathered in tightly at the state laboratory in Phoenix. All that was left to do for the three polo-clad Arizona Department of Health Services staff was turn on the Atom Action Bubble-Top Bingo Blower and begin.
It was August 7, 2012, and the state health department was using a $1,600 bingo machine to select numbers in a lottery drawing. More than 400 applicants were vying for fewer than 100 spots. Cameras clicked as the staffers dumped the first set of bingo balls into the machine, locked it shut, and waited for one to fly out of the cage. Over the next few hours, the process would determine which applicants won the first rights to open a nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in Arizona.
The drawing’s lucky winners — 91 of them in total — were fully aware they’d been awarded golden tickets. The vertically integrated certificates would grant license holders first dibs at growing, selling, and manufacturing medical marijuana products in a state that had never given patients access to pot before. For lottery winners who preferred not to get involved in a risky market that was still federally illegal, instant payouts were available. In the weeks after the lottery, several eager buyers paid $300,000 to $500,000 for control of licenses that had only cost applicants $5,000 to secure.
Seven-and-a-half years later, Arizona’s medical pot industry is roaring. It serves 220,000 patients and does $580 million in annual sales, according to a conservative $3,500 price-per-pound estimate. The total number of dispensary licenses issued has expanded to 130. And the value of those golden tickets has continued to rise exponentially. Dispensary licenses in the state are now worth over 1,000 times more than those original $5,000 investments: $5 million, $8 million,