The East Valley could become home to about 14 medical marijuana dispensaries by late summer under rules proposed by state regulators.
Those dispensaries would be allocated by city - and in some cases by districts within the communities - to avoid clustering that's occurred in other states.
The rules likely will spare areas around Arizona State University and other colleges from being swamped with the dispensaries, said Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
"Had we not carved this up, I think we would have gotten many, many applications from university areas, and we still probably will get lots of applications for north Tempe," Humble said. "It's just that there will only be one successful application."
The health department's proposal would limit Tempe to two dispensaries, one north of Southern Avenue and one south of there. Mesa would have five dispensaries. The agency also calls for dividing Chandler and Gilbert into two parts, with one dispensary per area. The communities of Apache Junction, Queen Creek and Ahwatukee Foothills would each be allowed one.
Humble's agency will decide who can open a dispensary in each area after reviewing applications under the medical marijuana program that Arizona voters approved in November. The health department has divided Arizona into 126 areas, which roughly matches the 124 dispensaries that will be allowed to open.
But the shops could become more concentrated over time.
About 18 districts cover tribal lands and likely won't generate applications because those areas are considered sovereign nations and don't have to allow dispensaries. The health department will wait one year to see what plays out on tribal lands, Humble said, and it could then reallocate remaining licenses to areas with the largest number of medical marijuana patients.
Those licenses would go to places with large elderly populations like Sun City and east Mesa, Humble said, if the program is strictly run and focuses on helping the ill.
The health department's rules are a relief to some cities, who had expected a larger number would be allowed under an approach the state had considered initially. Mesa expected eight or more but will likely get five.
However, one Mesa district won't have a dispensary under city rules that limit them to industrial areas. The city drafted restrictions before the state proposed its zones, but Humble said the city will likely be able to request which other area should be permitted two dispensaries.
Mesa and many other cities don't allow dispensaries within a mile of each other, and the state's rules further prevent clustering, zoning administrator Gordon Sheffield said.
"It makes things a little more predictable for us. Now we know how many dispensaries we're dealing with," Sheffield said. "We don't necessarily think there's going to be an inordinate amount based on our population."
Gilbert initially expected five dispensaries but now has just two. Chandler wasn't sure what it would get previously but calls have already come in from potential operators, said Jeff Kurtz, the city's zoning administrator.
"There's certainly interest at people looking to Chandler for possibly locating one of these," he said.
The health department is collecting feedback on the proposed rules through Feb. 18 and will make them formal by March 28.
The health department's zones are based on "community health analysis areas" that date to the 1980s and were created to track cancer rates and disease outbreaks. By using the existing areas for medicinal marijuana, the state has a tool to study the substance's use - or abuse.
The number and location of dispensaries could be telling as well, Humble said.
Arizona should have 15,000 to 20,000 patients if the marijuana is used for medicine, but that would rise to 150,000 "patients" if doctors allow people to get high under the guise of chronic pain, Humble said.
The real money in marijuana is in selling to people in their 20s and 30s with disposable incomes, Humble said. Those users are more likely to consume the maximum 2.5 ounces allowed every two weeks - about two joints per day. Humble said patients on chemotherapy who want to restore their appetites would use less.
One Colorado doctor made $1 million in one year by recommending marijuana to patients in what Humble pointed to as an abuse in other states. He predicted the first year will be key in determining whether Arizona's rules - and boards that review doctors - keep marijuana a medicine or something else.
"If we're successful and have a purely medicinal program, the state may not support 100 dispensaries," Humble said. "If it gets out of control and becomes recreational, 124 won't be enough."
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