Medical-marijuana facilities may soon have fewer options of where to open in Phoenix, through zoning changes the city is considering in advance of a possible statewide vote to make recreational use of the drug legal.
The city’s planning and development department is proposing stricter regulations for new dispensaries, cultivation sites and infusion facilities. Industry advocates say the changes would make it even more difficult to find locations where they could operate.
New medical-marijuana sites would have to be farther from places of worship and residential areas, if the changes are approved. They also would have to follow new requirements on their distance from day-care centers, homeless shelters and youth community centers.
The proposed changes are driven in part by the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act that could go to voters in November, Planning and Development Director Alan Stephenson said. The initiative would allow adults 21 and older to buy, grow and possess marijuana — which would be taxed — with certain restrictions.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is still collecting voter signatures to qualify the initiative for the November election.
Phoenix would draft new zoning requirements for recreational uses if the act is passed by voters. But existing medical-marijuana dispensaries would have the right to operate as recreational dispensaries, as the initiative is written now.
That means Phoenix needs to prepare, Stephenson said. The city’s Planning Commission will consider the stricter zoning rules April 7, with a possible vote by the City Council later this month.
“We need to be a little more cautious in how we treat these things,” Stephenson said.
City Council members have asked staff to move swiftly on drafting tougher regulations.
Several have raised concerns about how the legalization of recreational marijuana would affect Phoenix neighborhoods, and said the city should be prepared for the initiative to pass.
The city has more than a dozen medical-marijuana dispensaries. Many dispensaries in other parts of the state can now relocate, driving requests for more.
When state voters passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act in 2010, dispensaries were limited to one per geographic region— called Community Health Analysis Areas — as designated by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Dense cities like Phoenix have more analysis areas than other parts of the state.
Dispensaries are allowed to locate anywhere in the state after three years of operation, with most now meeting that requirement.
Councilman Jim Waring said at a subcommittee meeting earlier this year that he was concerned dispensaries would try to secure a spot in the city under the current regulations with the goal of transitioning to recreational facilities.
“The quicker we get on it, the better,” Waring said.
The required distance between a medical-marijuana facility and a place of worship would increase from 500 feet to 1,320 feet, under the proposed rules. The distance from residential areas would double from 250 to 500 feet for dispensaries.
And day-care centers, homeless shelters and youth community centers would be added to the 1,320-foot distance requirement that exists for schools and public parks. The changes would not affect facilities operating under the current requirements.
The goal is to balance potential community angst if the recreational initiative is approved with a facility’s right to locate in Phoenix, Stephenson said.
Proposed medical-marijuana facilities already are causing conflicts in some Phoenix neighborhoods.
Louisa Ward, who represents hundreds of households as the leader of the Mountain Preserve Block Watch in the 32nd Street corridor, said many of her neighbors would support the proposed increases in distances.
Nearby residents have been fighting an application to open a medical-marijuana dispensary at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard. They argue the location’s proximity to a school would have a negative impact on the area, and that the business doesn’t fit in with family-friendly revitalization efforts.
Neighbors also are aware the facility could one day open for recreational use, Ward said.
“That definitely has been an issue,” she said.
But the existing zoning rules are challenging for businesses to comply with, said Ryan Hurley, chair of Rose Law Group’s medical-marijuana practice group. The proposed changes could make it “next to impossible” to find a site that doesn’t require variances, he said.
“It was already hard,” Hurley said.
Many available locations for dispensaries are at strip malls near residential areas, he said. The city has existing spacing requirements that ensure medical-marijuana facilities are not too close to one another.
Hurley is advocating to loosen those restrictions between cultivation sites in primarily industrial areas.
The city has been more conservative recently in approving new medical-marijuana facilities, Hurley said. But neighborhood complaints wane after a facility is operating, he said.
“It’s the new ones people object to,” Hurley said.
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