Chandler approved first marijuana dispensary near 'learning center' for disabled kids

(Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the first medical marijuana dispensary approved within Chandler city limits, but there is a cloud of controversy surrounding the ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for next week.

The facility, called Territory Dispensary, will be a few hundred feet from a "learning center" for kids and adults with disabilities.

The dispensary will share a parking lot with Smiles Learning Center, which has playground equipment outside geared toward young children.

Chandler’s city ordinance prohibits dispensaries from opening within a quarter-mile of a school or day care. However, using a brand-new zoning process, the City of Chandler's Planning Department determined the Learning Center was neither a school nor a licensed day care and approved the dispensary Sept. 13, 2017 -- two days after the dispensary submitted its final application.

"I'm appalled to hear that a dispensary would want to put their business near kids with special needs," said Debbie Moak, the former director of the Governor's Office of Youth, Faith and Family and former founder of the non-profit notMYkid.

"I think this absolutely goes against what the populations and voters of Arizona want," she said.

City staff approved the dispensary without a public hearing or a council vote, two factors that are required for businesses selling liquor and were previously mandated under the City's old rules for marijuana businesses. The old approval framework existed from the inception of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act until Sept. 9, 2017 -- four days before the final approval.

Chandler public information officer Jim Phipps said City staff decided to review its dispensary approval process after receiving the initial application from the group behind Territory Dispensary in March. He noted it was only the City's second dispensary application since the AMMA took effect in 2011.

City staff recommended changing from a "use permit" process to a "staff-administered zoning clearance" process to bring Chandler more into line with nearby municipalities, Phipps said. Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Avondale, Peoria and Maricopa County do not require a public hearing for dispensary approval, Phipps said. Gilbert and Scottsdale require hearings.

Phipps said public hearings give the impression that public input can be considered in the approval process, when in reality the decisions are based on distances from prohibited uses and other technical considerations.

The city council voted unanimously to approve the change to a zoning clearance process Aug. 10. It took effect 30 days later.

Territory Dispensary is co-owned by James Christensen, a member of the Board of Directors of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce.

“Before the City of Chandler issued its approval, we confirmed with the City Attorney's Office that the location satisfies all requirements of state and local law,” said Cameron Artigue, an attorney for the dispensary’s parent entity, The Medicine Room LLC.

Territory Dispensary is scheduled to have a ribbon cutting Jan. 19 from 4 to 5 p.m.

What is Smiles Learning Center?

Smiles Learning Center, at 7100 W. Chandler Blvd., is about 450 feet from the dispensary, at 7200 W. Chandler Blvd., according to online mapping software.

The Center provides "respite, habilitation, and attendant care" to adults and children with intellectual and cognitive delays, according to its website. According to documents reviewed by the City, the Learning Center serves kids between the ages of 3 and 18, said Chandler Acting Planning Administrator Kevin Mayo.

The exact nature of the Center, however, is in dispute.

Smiles Learning Center declined to comment for this report. Public records show the Center leases from the same landlord, Bama Chandler LLC, as the new dispensary.

“For the zoning clearance application form, it isn't necessary to determine what it is, it's necessary to determine what it isn’t,” Mayo said.

The Center is not licensed as a day care with the State, even though it operates in a building that was previously licensed as one, Mayo said.

The City also determined Smiles is not a private school. In Arizona, private schools are broadly defined as “a nonpublic institution where instruction is imparted.” They do not need to be registered with the Arizona Department of Education.

“Looking at the information that we can get from Smiles, they provide services to autistic children. That falls more under a service provider for the developmentally disabled. That is regulated by the Department of Health Services,” Mayo said.

Since the Center falls under the purview of DHS, Mayo said it is essentially a healthcare provider that cannot be considered a private school, since schools are regulated by the Department of Education.

Critics argue that Smiles is a school and have launched a website opposing the dispensary. An attorney representing a competing dispensary near Chandler wrote a letter arguing the dispensary violates state and local laws.

Special education attorney Hope Kirsch, who is not involved with the case, said health care providers can sometimes be considered schools, citing residential treatment centers as an example.

Said Moak, "Certainly, they need to re-look at this. There's no question. And get community input."

"What comes next? How many more locations will think that they can go out and look for vulnerable youth populations and place their dispensary next to them as well?" she said.

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