AZ: How Marijuana Dispensaries Are Making Zoning Laws Go Up In Smoke


Much of the talk lately has been about the ballot initiative for recreational marijuana use, but Arizona will award licenses for 31 new medical marijuana dispensaries in October.

Most will be worth millions of dollars the day they are issued, and all an applicant had to do was find a location that complies with local zoning and pay a $5,000 fee. This sounds simple enough, but there are serious problems.

The Arizona Department of Health Services, which awards the licenses lottery-style, doesn’t require dispensary applicants be 100 percent compliant with zoning the day of the drawing.

Rather, the state department requires that the dispensary has the potential to become compliant. Read: it could get a variance or some other land-use exception to open in a locally prohibited place, whether near a school, a place of worship or a neighborhood.

While a city and its zoning board are the line of defense in protecting these areas, you can bet these valuable dispensaries will have a team of zoning experts working to overcome zoning hurdles. And if the hurdle can’t be cleared, the dispensary doesn’t forfeit its license, it gets to choose a new spot that could be miles in either direction. This leads to a lack of transparency, or a lot of moving parts for even the most astute resident to monitor. Many just give up the fight.

In Phoenix alone, the city has granted 67 marijuana-related exceptions since they began operations several years back.

This is wrong. Residents deserve predictability and certainty in decisions about where dispensaries will open. They should feel confident the state will only consider applications that fully comply with the laws, ordinances and rules designed to protect the character of our neighborhoods.

We have time to fix this, if leaders act

Because this process is still underway at ADHS, there is time to fix the problem.

The solution is simple: Do not award a dispensary to any applicant unless they are in full compliance with all zoning, land-use and development standards. No exemptions, no variances and no exceptions.

Just enforce the existing policies to protect our neighborhoods at the time the application was filed. If an application doesn’t fully comply, toss it. This single change would prevent a license from being awarded to locations that state and local leaders have sensibly protected for years.

We believe that Arizona has some pretty good zoning and development policies that, more often than not, actually result in good land-use decisions. These policies are predictable, largely transparent, and usually allow for public participation. They are designed to make sure we don’t end up with high-rises next to neighborhoods or place a landfill where the community doesn’t want it. Residents and local businesses should expect nothing less than this same level of scrutiny and oversight when it comes to locating a medical marijuana dispensary.

How can this happen?

The reasoning that allows non-compliant applications to be considered legitimate is a little fuzzy.

Because a variance can be granted – basically an exemption from local zoning protections – it is possible to place a dispensary in a prohibited location. These prohibited locations are places that most of us consider off-limits, such as near a school, a church or a day-care center.

Yet these applications are being treated as legitimate based upon the notion that a variance could someday, somehow be granted. In other words, because an address has the potential to become fully compliant with state and local zoning restrictions through a variance or similar maneuver, it receives the same treatment as an application that is ready to open for business.

For a license application to be submitted to ADHS, it must include a completed form certifying that the proposed location “complies” with local zoning. The application isn’t valid unless a city, town or county official signs off on it. This very official looking form is entitled “Documentation of Compliance with Local Jurisdiction Zoning.” It even includes a box to be checked that says: “The location of the proposed dispensary is in compliance with local zoning restrictions related to where a dispensary may be located.”

However, city officials, in signing off on these forms, seem to have concluded that the potential for compliance is just as good as actual compliance.

The notion that “compliance” means anything other than complete conformity with state and local land use requirements is just silly.

The rush to certain areas

Making matters worse, the mailing address of Arizona’s 100,000 medical marijuana cardholders is the most significant factor in determining where a license will be awarded. So, the most creative applicants are submitting addresses located as close to these neighborhoods as possible.

Some of the biggest challenges can be found in Phoenix, where we live. Because Phoenix has many medical marijuana card holders, at least nine of the 31 licenses will be granted within the city, and there are hundreds of applications.

In the weeks before last month’s application deadline, stories of applicants paying landlords to use addresses began to emerge. One proposed location on Camelback Road falls within the protective boundaries surrounding the nearby Faith Lutheran Church, St. Francis Catholic Church, Brophy and Xavier College Prep, as well as an elementary school, a preschool, and a neighborhood just 22 feet away. Despite its obvious problems, a location such as this would be given the same consideration as every other applicant when it comes to awarding a license.

It’s safe to assume that an applicant who receives a license to open at a location like this will seriously consider hiring a team of zoning experts to obtain the variances they will need to open a dispensary on that spot.

We are calling upon our mayors and councilmembers, state legislators and the governor to “Just Say No” to these bogus applications. They have the authority to instruct ADHS to interpret “compliance” at the local level as “fully compliant” and nothing less. In other words, no zoning variance needed. The agency already has the legal authority to scrap those applications deemed incomplete or fraudulent. To protect our schools, neighborhoods and places of worship, this needs to be done now, before the licenses are awarded.

With so much attention focused on the upcoming statewide vote on the legalization of the adult use of marijuana in our state, it is hard to ignore the politics associated with this topic. While medical marijuana is clearly here to stay, the fight against legalizing adult use has become a banner issue for the chamber of commerce and a handful of Arizona business leaders and elected officials. We are asking our state’s leadership to take a brief detour on their way to the anti-legalization battlefield in the November General Election and resolve this issue before it is too late.

This problem is an urgent one. Decisions on these applications will be made in the coming days and weeks that will have an impact across our state well into the future. By acting now, we can help our communities avoid the uncertainty that will result from the current approach to issuing new licenses. The two of us are ready and willing to stand with our state and local leaders to ensure that Arizona does this right.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: How Marijuana Dispensaries Are Making Zoning Laws Go Up In Smoke
Author: Grant Woods
Contact: 602-444-8000
Photo Credit: Jeff Chiu
Website: The Arizona Republic