Medical marijuana: Dispensary applicants ignore zoning ordinances

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Passed by voters in 2010, Arizona’s medical marijuana law gave the state authority to license and regulate a select number of medical marijuana dispensaries. (Source: 3TV) Passed by voters in 2010, Arizona’s medical marijuana law gave the state authority to license and regulate a select number of medical marijuana dispensaries. (Source: 3TV)
The area of Fifth Street and Camelback Road is the kind of place zoning laws are meant to protect from certain kinds of businesses, including our growing medical marijuana industry. (Source: 3TV) The area of Fifth Street and Camelback Road is the kind of place zoning laws are meant to protect from certain kinds of businesses, including our growing medical marijuana industry. (Source: 3TV)
The 511 E. Camelback Road location happens to be the current storefront for The Marijuana Doctor. You can see a doctor and get a medical marijuana card there, but it is not a licensed dispensary. (Source: 3TV) The 511 E. Camelback Road location happens to be the current storefront for The Marijuana Doctor. You can see a doctor and get a medical marijuana card there, but it is not a licensed dispensary. (Source: 3TV)
From 511 E. Camelback Road, it's a very short walk to Brophy High School -- 530 feet, to be exact. (3TV) From 511 E. Camelback Road, it's a very short walk to Brophy High School -- 530 feet, to be exact. (3TV)
Of the 750 total applications, only 31 will get the green light. (Source: 3TV) Of the 750 total applications, only 31 will get the green light. (Source: 3TV)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

The Arizona Department of Health Services is getting ready to award the next round of medical marijuana dispensary licenses next month, and there are dozens of applicants who want to open up shop right next to schools, churches and homes, places that are supposed to be protected from that kind of development.

Former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is worried that protection might not last.

"Oh, it's a big problem, I would guess," Gordon said. "Based on what I've seen and reviewed, probably less than one-third [of applicants] are in full compliance."

Medical marijuana is big business with each license said to be worth $3 million before a dispensary even opens its doors.

State and city officials acknowledge that many applicants are knowingly ignoring existing zoning ordinances, asking to open a medical marijuana dispensary as close as they can to neighborhoods.

It seems like they applicants would be easily denied, right?

READ: Problems with Arizona's licensing process for medical marijuana dispensaries?

The state changed the rules governing how it is awarding this next batch of dispensary licenses in a way that gives those questionable applications -- the ones that are out of compliance with zoning -- far better odds of winning a license, compared to applicants who followed all the rules, staying further away from homes, schools and churches.

Some homeowners say that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Case in point

Fifth Street and Camelback Road is a place where a lot of people live, worship and go to school.

Joe Ahern grew up there and says it's a quiet family neighborhood, the kind of place zoning laws are meant to protect from certain kinds of businesses, including our growing medical marijuana industry.

Right now, the Arizona Department of Health Services is reviewing an application for a medical marijuana dispensary at 511 E. Camelback Road.

In fact, it’s one of six applications vying for a license in the same strip mall.

Of the 750 total applications, only 31 will get the green light.

RELATED: Hundreds apply for new Arizona pot dispensary licenses

The 511 E. Camelback Road location happens to be the current storefront for The Marijuana Doctor. You can see a doctor and get a medical marijuana card there, but it is not a licensed dispensary, which means it cannot sell you any pot.

But it wants to. The business wants to be a one-stop medical marijuana shop, but there's the problem. This location has seven zoning violations for being too close to homes, schools, preschools and churches.

Colby Bower with ADHS says the state is relying on a letter from the City of Phoenix accompanying each application to show that a given location either doesn't have any zoning restrictions or is pretty much ready to go.

The current City of Phoenix ordinance requires dispensaries be at least 1,320 feet from churches and schools and 500 feet from neighborhoods.

At 511 E. Camelback Road, The Marijuana Doctor is only 22 feet from a neighborhood.

On that exemption alone, the City could have blocked the application.

We [the state] leave it up to the local jurisdictions where they best want to place these dispensaries.

Instead, it sent a letter to the state, signing off on it.

Phoenix Planning and Development Director Alan Stephenson said no matter how far fetched a proposal may seem, everyone has a right to apply for any zoning variance or exception to the law.

That does not, however, mean the City will approve it.

Ultimately, those variances -- exceptions to the rules -- would have to go through a public hearing and be decided by the Board of Adjustment, which is made up of people appointed by the City Council.

"I don't anticipate a lot of variances being approved," Stephenson said.

You might think the state would intervene beforehand and toss out any application that isn’t already in full compliance with the zoning requirements.

Bower said that's not what the state is doing.

"We leave it up to the local jurisdictions where they best want to place these dispensaries," Bower said.

The law voters passed in 2010 included one specific protection: No medical marijuana dispensaries within 500 feet of a school.

From 511 E. Camelback Road, it's a very short walk to Brophy High School -- 530 feet, to be exact.

Just far enough to comply with state law.

"I'd really want to see them staying away from the schools and churches," Ahern, a Brophy alumnus, said. "That's just asking for trouble."

This application might actually have better odds of getting approved than one already in full zoning compliance because the state changed the way it's awarding dispensary licenses.

"If the one that's not in full compliance rates at the top, it's going to get the award," Gordon said.

The first round of medical marijuana dispensary licenses were awarded as part of a lottery based on geography. This time, the key is patient density. Licenses are being awarded based on a formula of how close applicants are to clusters of card-carrying medical marijuana patients, even if those applicants are nowhere near compliance.

Fifth Street and Camelback Road is such an area.

“That is an underserved area because there were no licenses granted because it was too close to homes and churches and schools," Gordon said.

The great irony here is that a place meant to be protected by zoning laws is a better bet for dispensary applicants precisely because it's been protected in the past.

I'd really want to see them staying away from the schools and churches. That's just asking for trouble.

"Once that license is in place and the operation is really going, that license is probably worth $10 million," Gordon said.

And to top it off, if Arizona voters legalize recreational weed this November, medical marijuana dispensaries will have the first crack at selling pot to everyone.

READ: Arizona Supreme Court says legal marijuana measure on ballot

RELATED: Colorado leaders ask Arizonans to vote no on legalizing marijuana

PDF: City of Phoenix letter to the state regarding 511 E. Camelback Road

Copyright 2016 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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