Arizona's Week in Weed: Phoenix Changing Rules, Ducey Signs Pot-Baby Bill, and More

Arizona's got marijuana on the brain — and no wonder: The state has one of the country's biggest medical-marijuana programs, it has at least one potential adult-use legalization initiative likely to appear on November's ballot, and it shares a border with one of the world's biggest producers of cannabis. 

Here's a roundup of some of last week's biggest Arizona news stories related to cannabis and the Grand Canyon State:

• The Phoenix Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday voted to refer restrictions on medical-marijuana dispensaries to the Phoenix City Council for possible adoption as part of a strategy to limit the effects of a potential recreational-use law that voters could approve in November. 

Phoenix Planning and Development Director Alan Stephenson tells New Times that the possible ballot initiative is being discussed now because it guarantees the ability for a medical-marijuana establishment to convert to a recreational facility.

The proposed changes still must be approved by the City Council — at a meeting scheduled for the April 20 marijuana "holiday."

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"The City Council has expressed concern over the number of use permit applications for medical marijuana establishments that are being requested" recently, Stephenson said.

City staff reviewed the requirements in other cities, then began working a few months ago on the text for the potential change to city ordinance "based upon concerns from multiple City Council members," he said.

The proposed changes still must be approved by the council — at a meeting scheduled for the April 20 marijuana "holiday." Members aim to increase the allowed distance between residences and dispensaries, and would add homeless shelters, community centers, and day-care clinics as things dispensaries can't be near. They already can't be less than 500 feet from a church, or less than 1,320 feet from a school or public park. 

The city already has 10 dispensaries, eight cultivation-only sites, and eight combination cultivation and infusion centers, records show.

One area the city's relenting on is the space allowed between cultivation and infusion centers. Marijuana-industry representatives had asked the city to reduce that space so the facilities could be closer to each other, and the Planning and Zoning Commission voted in favor of allowing the space requirement between those businesses shrink from 5,280 feet to 1,760 feet.

New Times
asked Stephenson and Councilman Jim Waring why the city would limit something that, if the initiative passes, would be what most voters want. Clearly, the demand for legal marijuana would increase greatly over the current demand for medical marijuana, so if the city prevents more retail cannabis stores from opening close to those that are already there, the medical-marijuana dispensaries would have trouble keeping with the demand — at first, anyway.

Asked about these issues, Stephenson replied that the city would evaluate the initiative if it's approved.

City officials confirmed that no discussion has been held, or is planned to be held, on the potential for limiting individual home cultivation if voters approve the legalization initiative.

Ryan Hurley, a lawyer for several dispensaries and an activist with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona (CRMLA), told the Arizona Republic that the proposed restrictions would make it "next to impossible" to find a suitable location for a new dispensary in Phoenix.

UPDATE: Councilman Jim Waring got back to us on Monday morning with a response to our questions about this. We asked him why Phoenix was being less receptive to the potential initiative instead of more receptive, and whether he felt he was respecting the (potential) will of voters. Here's what he said:

"I do not believe it is a question of being receptive. I have had a longstanding policy against the legalization of marijuana. I have been consistent in this over the years and continue to work (within the framework of existing laws) to limit its availability. I always assumed that at some point the word medical would be replaced by recreational. Again, working within existing law (or potential future laws as you suggest below) I have asked that city staff be prepared with a policy that would achieve the above goal to the extent possible. I believe this both respects the will of voters who may vote for the initiative but also those who have voted for those of us who are against the initiative. They expect elected officials to act on the positions that they have taken and that is what I am doing here."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.