Medical Marijuana
Ross D. Franklin, The Associated Press

Potential operators of medical marijuana dispensaries have revived their plans to open East Valley locations now that a lawsuit to block the drug's medical use has been dismissed.

People who want to open dispensaries have been checking with cities to make sure they can move quickly if they are issued licenses by Arizona this summer. They're asking if they can transfer approved locations to other people or they are seeking reassurance previously issued city approvals are still valid, said Ryan Levesque, a senior planner in Tempe.

"Calls have been picking up the past few weeks," Levesque said.

Tempe had more interest than any East Valley city last year when municipalities began sifting through applications for dispensary locations.

Mesa has also seen renewed interest, while Gilbert's had a single inquiry. Chandler hasn't had any new interest, and a city official said it's unlikely a dispensary will find a place to open in that community despite the state's medical marijuana program going forward.

The would-be dispensary owners flooded cities last year with applications, totaling more than 80 in the East Valley. Tempe was overwhelmed with about 50 applications, while Mesa fielded 35. Chandler and Gilbert had only a few applications per city.

The processing came to a halt last year when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer filed a lawsuit to block the Arizona Department of Health Services from accepting dispensary applications. Last month, a federal judge threw out the suit and a Maricopa County court ordered the Department of Health Services to take applications.

Despite the length of the delay, East Valley cities said no applicants have withdrawn so far.

Some potential operators got frustrated by the lawsuit and gave up, said Dr. Bruce Bedrick of Kind Clinics, a Valley-based consultant who helps applicants qualify and sells turnkey equipment to dispensaries. He said he's had no problem finding clients after the lawsuit was resolved.

"We're over 60 now but it's probably going to be over 70 when it's all said and done," Bedrick said.

But the East Valley will only have a fraction of the more than 80 proposed dispensaries.

Arizona's medical marijuana program allows just one dispensary in each of the state's Community Health Analysis Areas, which are geographic areas the state uses to monitor public health data.

Arizona has 126 of these areas, and the East Valley has about a dozen. There are two each in Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe, and five in Mesa.

Tempe approved dispensaries at 16 sites that meet its land-use regulations, before the lawsuit halted action.

"We're still honoring those approvals we granted from last year," Levesque said. "Basically, we gave them an indefinite hold."

The state will use a lottery to determine who will get the two licenses allocated to Tempe. After that, Levesque said the only remaining hurdle for those operators will be passing building permit inspections.

Mesa has 26 locations where applicants have met requirements, with stronger concentrations on its west side. Gilbert has had a single inquiry since the lawsuit was resolved, said Mike Milillo, zoning administrator.

Each city has its own rules on where dispensaries can locate, requiring various distances from schools, churches, residential areas and other dispensaries.

Those regulations could keep a dispensary from opening in Chandler, said Jodie Novak, a senior city planner.

The city has only a few areas open to dispensaries. They include shopping centers near 54th Street and Ray Road, around Germann and Gilbert roads and part of Chandler Fashion Center. But those landowners won't lease to dispensaries, Novak said.

One hopeful dispensary operator sought an exception to city rules last year when applying for a spot near Chandler Regional Hospital, but the City Council rejected the proposal. That dampened interest in Chandler, Novak said.

"A lot of people said, ‘I'm not going to bother going through a process if the council denied it," Novak said.

Bedrick said the rules are stacked against the medical marijuana industry in some East Valley cities.

"Gilbert and Chandler made their zoning laws so intensely scrutinized that I don't believe there's going to be a dispensary in every single CHAA (Community Health Analysis Areas)," Bedrick said.

Arizona could issue licenses as soon as June, which would allow dispensaries to open by July or August.

Department of Health Services rules administrator Tom Salow said he doesn't expect the agency will issue all of the 126 licenses this year that are available. Tribal nations will likely block the 18 dispensaries that the geographical system would set aside for them.

If that's the case, the Department of Health Services would accept applications in 2013 for those licenses or any others not issued this year, Salow said. Arizona would calculate where medical marijuana cardholders live but are underserved by dispensaries.

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