The apparent award of a state license for a medical marijuana dispensary located less than 10 feet from the playground of a longtime Ahwatukee preschool has created a neighborhood controversy with plenty of bureaucratic mystery.
Leaders of Grace Garden Christian Preschool and neighboring residents and businesses were stunned to learn that the state Department of Health Services granted a dispensary license for a building now housing a Valvoline Express Care oil change garage.
And no one knows who received the license ‒ or why.
“I was in total shock when I found out,” said preschool director Catherine Thomson, who held a meeting last Friday with concerned parents and neighbors to begin strategizing a fight against the dispensary.
The preschool has been a neighborhood institution for 14 years and is only a few hundred feet away from a 600-member church, a thriving strip mall and another preschool. It also is only a block away from another medical marijuana dispensary.
“We are not opposed to medical marijuana,” Thomson stressed. “But if it’s not OK for a dispensary to be located next to a school or a daycare facility, why is it OK for one to be right up against a preschool?”
Thomson is not the only posing that question.
The mystery begins with DHS, where a spokeswoman said dispensary licenses are not public record. She said she could not even confirm that a license had been awarded for that building.
Councilman Sal DiCiccio’s office also is puzzled.
Rana Lashgari, his chief of staff, told the group that so far no one has applied for a zoning permit to operate a dispensary at that address. She said DiCiccio’s staff was trying to determine who owns the building and why a license was issued.
“We care,” she told the group. “We have someone specifically assigned to this case. But this is a process with a lot of oversight, and this won’t slip through the cracks.”
She noted that once someone applies for a zoning permit, they must post information on the front door of the building where the business is to be located. There also are several hearings before different governing entities, including City Council, that must be held.
Among the 20 or so people who gathered Friday for the meeting, most seemed convinced that whoever got the license has deep pockets, given that the licenses could be worth millions of dollars in revenue for the companies and individuals who hold them.
Neighbor Katrina Barringer, a neighbor whose children attend nearby Ahwatukee Preschool, told the audience:
“I’ve been a medical marijuana advocate for at least 15 years, but this is a matter of corporate corruption and crime. They have millions of dollars to pay lawyers to get around city zoning laws. The Department of Health Services should be serving your health and you, too, not these corporations.”
News of the license ‒ which Thomson got from a television news reporter ‒ alarmed Thomson and former assistant director Joy Bradshaw.
They fear parents will pull out some of the school’s approximately 100 pupils, who range in age from 6 weeks to 12 years old. The older kids are cared for before and after school.
“We cannot function without our parents,” Bradshaw told the audience, noting that “we had to have a fundraiser to raise $200 to get into the Easter Parade.”
“The bottom line is that, unfortunately, if they get to operate a medical marijuana dispensary, we will have to close,” Bradshaw said.
Thomson and several parents expressed fears that a dispensary poses the threat of a violent robbery.
“Plus, there would be a lot of traffic,” she said, adding, “And what about the smell?”
Though she has myriad duties as chief administrator, Thomson spent a good part of last week visiting neighboring businesses and eliciting their support for the fight the school is mounting.
“This to me is a priority,” she said, adding that businesses in the area also were shocked by the prospect of a second dispensary opening in their neighborhood.
Her fight attracted supporters, including a former employer of another dispensary, a neighborhood activist from Maryvale and a concerned citizen from another county.
The activist, Al de Pascal, told the audience that he has fought dispensaries from setting up in his community and that they should expect a fight with government bureaucracy.
He said that once they apply for a city zoning permit, dispensaries are required to send letters to only 10 businesses located within several miles of the establishment. In one case, he said, the letters were sent to corporate headquarters in California, Florida and other states that owned those businesses and only one happened to reach an owner in his neighborhood.
“You have to go in there and make noise,” de Pascal said. “The state is pushing the buck onto the city.”
The whole process of state licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries is scheduled to come under judicial review later this month as a result of about a dozen lawsuits brought against DHS on behalf of several would-be licensees whose bids were passed over.
One businessman who applied for a permit near the Deer Valley Airport told a TV station last week that his business complied with city and state distance requirements from schools and churches, but that he was ignored as the state handed out 31 licenses in one day.
Applications for licenses cost a nonrefundable $5,000; a reported 750 applications were filed before the latest round of licenses was approved.