Medical marijuana

Sun Citians’ interest in where Surprise decides to locate its four medical marijuana dispensaries is a clear one: safety.

Thursday night, Surprise planning commissioners discussed ground rules for locating the dispensaries and public safety concerns for both those frequenting the establishments and others who live near the facilities.

In November, Arizona voters approved Proposition 203, allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to certain people faced with debilitating diseases. Subsequently, state health officials established 126 Community Health Analysis Areas to ensure even distribution and clustering of medical-marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities.

Chris Boyd, Surprise’s assistant director of community and economic development, said Surprise encompasses four CHAAs, which includes the entire city and areas around the Sun Cities.

Surprise planning commissioners Thursday night approved stringent zoning measures for these storefronts to set up in some of Surprise’s less desirable areas.

The decision did not come easily.

Voting 5-2, the commissioners decided to allow medical-marijuana dispensaries to operate in heavy commercial and industrial areas, rather than near the city’s major commercial corridors and residential areas.

Some of the proposed locations for Surprise’s medical-marijuana facilities include locations just east and north of Bell Road and Grand Avenue, near Litchfield and Dysart roads and near Jomax Road and Grand Avenue.

The plan, which was developed by city officials, was met with dissatisfaction as some commissioners argued locating dispensaries in downtrodden, unlit areas would not be convenient or safe during nighttime hours.

One proposed area under C-2 zoning included a location at Bell and El Mirage roads near the old Surprise City Hall, which city officials believed would not be suitable with the age-restricted Sunflower RV Resort nearby.

While state health officials want to emulate the successes of California’s longtime medical-marijuana program, they also want to strike a balance in addressing safety issues.

Boyd said city officials have taken a close look at problems in Los Angeles on issues related to loss of business, noise and criminal activity near medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Boyd was quick to point out that while medical-marijuana users were not to blame for all the transgressions and crime, there was a correlation between the problems and locations of the dispensaries.

“This is unchartered territory for us,” he said, noting Surprise will take a conservative approach to its medical marijuana program. “We really don’t know what to expect in Arizona.”

Dispensaries, which can now occupy 2,500 square feet rather than 2,000 square feet of space, must be 3,000 feet from one another. The ordinance also calls for a 1,500-foot buffer from schools and parks, and a 500-foot buffer near homes and houses of worship.

The CHAAs also allows designated caregivers of terminally ill patients to cultivate marijuana in their patients’ homes, without being subjected to mandates that require those wishing to cultivate their own medical marijuana to live at least 25 miles away from a dispensary.

Commissioner John Hallin voiced concerns about having medical marijuana in the hands of caregivers, who he believes should be required to have a conditional use permit as they may try to sell it out of their patients’ homes. 

“I think we can control dispensaries and growing areas, but we can’t control what’s going on at these homes,” Hallin said.

Jeff Mihelich, Surprise’s director of community and economic development, said no other home businesses are required a conditional use permit to operate in Surprise. Mihelich also said state and city officials would know where the homes of terminally ill patients are located to ensure their safety and that no criminal activity takes place.

The issue of medical marijuana hits close to home for Councilman Mike Woodard, who lost his wife several years ago to ovarian cancer. Woodard, who is being treated for skin cancer, has battled other forms of cancer on three separate occasions.

The 13-year resident said planning commissioners and city officials need to retool their opinions of medical marijuana and not think of it as the illegal drug young people take to get high. He said he believes there’s legitimacy to medical marijuana for medical purposes and said the city ought to allow dispensaries to operate in areas more convenient to the elderly. 

Planning commissioners touched on numerous items relating to medical marijuana, but agreed hours of operation at dispensaries can be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The proposal goes to the City Council Tuesday for a vote. The state is expected to publish its final rules March 28. Qualified patients and caregivers can begin filling out applications for medical marijuana use in April before the state begins accepting dispensary applications May 1.

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