AZ: Marijuana Dispensary Coming To Your Area? Chances Are It Didn’t Go Before City Council

Photo Credit: David Wallace

Metro Phoenix cities each have their own rules for medical marijuana dispensaries, but one is nearly always the same: new dispensary openings don’t need city councils approvals.

In 10 Valley cities, from Glendale to Gilbert, new dispensary openings are approved with planning staff or commission approvals.

Chandler is the latest city to implement the less public process. The Southeast Valley suburb recently approved its first dispensary, which has been public enough to generate debate about its location.

As with other new projects, Chandler still sends public notices to surrounding neighborhoods.

Cities have fine-tuned their policies in the eight years since Arizona voters legalized the use of medical marijuana. The number of medical marijuana card-holders continues to grow, hitting 152,000 by the end of 2017, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

With the growing number of patients, so grows the number of dispensaries, including Arizona’s first drive-through medical marijuana dispensary, which opened in Sun City last fall.

While a Chandler planner said its decision to join other cities in bypassing elected officials in approving dispensaries should decrease red-tape for applicants, others say regulations remain overly complicated.

Demitri Downing, the founder of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association of Arizona, said the differences in restrictions and processes among cities is a major issue.

“I’d describe it as cumbersome, restrictive and challenging,” Downing said. “It’s a hodgepodge system of ordinances across the state.”

Different rules for different cities

Scottsdale remains the only large Valley city to send dispensary applications through the city council. It also has among the most restrictions, including that dispensaries can’t be open past 7 p.m.

Cities vary widely on where dispensaries can open.

Each city has its own rules for how far a dispensary has to be from schools, churches and other buildings. Some restrict dispensaries to particular areas.

For example, Tempe and Glendale require that dispensaries be at least 500 feet from a residential area while Chandler requires at least a 1,320 feet separation. Gilbert restricts dispensaries to the town’s industrial areas. Some municipalities restrict the size of dispensary buildings. In Glendale, it can be no more than 2,000 square feet.

“All it does is drive up cost of business which drives up costs to patients,” Downing said, adding that he hopes local governments begin trying to make policies more uniform. The “hoops” dispensary operators must jump through and the money involved in the permitting process directly impacts the patients, Downing said.

Beyond city regulations, those opening a medical marijuana facility also must wade through state rules.

That’s another reason why Chandler changed its process to only require that new dispensaries be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission, said Kevin Mayo, a staff liaison with the commission. The state already limits where dispensaries can open, he said.

A new dispensary opening in Chandler has faced some criticism.

Daycare, learning center or neither?

James Christensen aims to soon open what will be the first Chandler dispensary not on a county island.

The Chandler Planning Commission gave its nod to the dispensary, called Territory, in November.

A website, “Chandler Families Against Drugs,” has popped up to take issue with the dispensary, in part because of its proximity to a learning center.

Territory plans to open in a strip mall, near 54th and Detroit streets, about 200 feet away from Smiles, a learning center for children with developmental disabilities. Chandler rules require the dispensaries to be a quarter mile away from a daycare or school.

So why is this one so close?

Smiles is not listed on state websites as a school or a daycare, leading city officials to deem that it’s not one, Mayo said. The commission has no plans to revisit its decision, despite a request from Kristina Sabbagh, an attorney representing a nearby dispensary on a county island in Chandler.

“The children that attend Smiles typically do not attend any other school or learning facility,” Sabbagh argues in her letter, adding, “thus, Smiles is a private school not only because it fits the state’s definition of a private school but also because common sense dictates that.”

Smiles did not respond to requests for comment.

To advocates like Downing, the recent controversy in Chandler highlights the cultural stigma around marijuana.

Downing said dispensaries do their best to be good neighbors by having security guards nearby and give back to the communities they’re in due to their non-profit status.

“That is exactly the kind of neighbor you want,” Downing said.