The fledgling medical marijuana industry has set its sights on Tempe, flooding the college town with more than 40 requests to set up shop there.
That’s twice the number of inquiries for the rest of the East Valley combined. It’s also far more than the roughly 13 shops that state regulators will allow in the entire East Valley.
Tempe figured demand would be high because of the city’s central location and large student population at Arizona State University, said Steve Abrahamson, the city’s planning and zoning administrator.
“It’s really not a surprise we’re where there would be the demand,” he said.
The interest in Tempe triggered snickers among some officials and even would-be operators who suggested medicine wasn’t the real motive behind some of those budding entrepreneurs.
Dan Steadman is looking to establish a shop but didn’t bother with Tempe because he knew competition would be so stiff.
“It’s like playing the lottery,” he said. “I’m sure in that group there will be a lot of people who are not qualified to open up a store.”
Steadman said he discovered marijuana’s medical value after surgery and other traditional treatments failed to ease crippling nausea. Steadman said he used the substance legally in California, which also allows medicinal marijuana. Steadman said he was prepared to leave Arizona if voters hadn’t legalized medicinal marijuana in November’s election and that he has long planned to get into the industry.
“Whatever it takes, we’ll jump through the hoops to do something we really believe in,” Steadman said.
Steadman and his brother Tim set their sights initially on Mesa and then shifted to Pinal County for a better shot at winning the limited number of state-issued licenses. Regulators have tentatively planned to allow about 124 dispensaries in Arizona, with one shop each in 126 zones that were established to study public health. That translates to five shops in Mesa, and two each for Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert. Apache Junction and Queen Creek will be allowed one shop each.
Mesa has received 16 applications since it began accepting them Thursday. Gilbert has two, while Chandler has three.
The Arizona Department of Health Services will award licenses after reviewing each applicant’s proposal and credentials. East Valley communities regulate where the shops can go, generally keeping them away from neighborhoods, schools, churches and parks. The cities require public hearings for each potential location. Some communities could approve more locations than are allowed in their boundaries, leaving state regulators to choose which operators will get a license. Tempe established a lottery to prioritize which candidates it will focus on based on the number each applicant drew.
City planners said it’s hard to predict if shops will generate a backlash or if the community will see them like any other business.
“I am continually surprised by the public,” said Gordon Sheffield, Mesa’s zoning administrator. “I’ve seen circumstances where I’ve expected a lot of turnout and nobody shows up.”
A review of applications for shops in Mesa reveals a wide range of business models and sophistication. One application showed a bare-bones shop featuring only a small lobby and one other room where the marijuana would be sold. Most of the store would be empty, according to a 10-page submittal.
A much thicker application for The Virtue Center decried the more free-wheeling medical marijuana approach in California and Colorado, where critics of the drug say state laws have led to widespread recreational use under the guise of medicine. The Virtue Center would be an upscale dispensary where patients visit by appointment and go unnoticed in a large office building, the request said.
“Patients deserve the security of a professional approach to the dispensary concept, where they can receive appropriate counseling, privacy, and their needed medicines without fear or embarrassment,” the application said.
The Peace Releaf Center submitted three bound booklets detailing every aspect of the operation, including a 57-page security plan. A man named Jeff associated with the organization openly discussed the founders’ efforts and approach but did not want his last name published until a license was awarded.
“We have several people involved in our group who have family members who are either cancer survivors or have lost family members to cancer,” Jeff said. “We’re not looking for any other reason other than medical.”
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