The first state-authorized medical marijuana dispensaries will likely open in Arizona this summer, said Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services.
Humble, addressing TV viewers minutes ago on Channel 8's (KAET-TV) Horizon news show, said his agency would be awarding the first licenses by mid-June.
"If someone was really ready to go -- they had their business plan and everything ready -- we could see some dispensaries in, say, mid-July, maybe early August," he said.
While that's good news for the state's registered medical-marijuana patients, who now total more than 18,000, it also means the dispensaries will be arriving about a year late.
Voters approved Proposition 203 in the November 2010 election, authorizing the use, cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana for qualified users. The new law gave the DHS power to create an administration system for privately owned dispensaries, the number of which would be capped to 10 percent of the state's pharmacies.
Investors and entrepreneurs prepared to turn the pipe dream of marijuana advocates into reality, with hopes for a literally budding billion-dollar industry.
But Governor Jan Brewer and state Attorney General Tom Horne, both Republicans and vocal opponents of Prop 203, had other plans.
After the prop squeaked into a narrow victory, Horne met with representatives of the group that had opposed it. They discussed filing a lawsuit in federal court to halt the dispensaries. A few months later, following a letter by then-Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke reiterating that federal law still prohibited marijuana, Brewer filed the lawsuit and stopped the DHS from accepting dispensary applications.
Caregivers and qualified patients continued to received state authorization to grow, share and use medical marijuana.
Two major court rulings on the issue this month nuked Brewer's plans to thwart Arizona voters.
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Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton tossed out the federal lawsuit, which basically had asked the judge to determine whether Arizona's law was legal. Bolton said the request for declaratory judgment was premature, because it hinged on the untested notion that state workers were at risk of being prosecuted for administering the program.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama ruled a couple of weeks later that the people had spoken and Brewer lacked the discretion to put any portion of the new law on hold. He ordered the state to launch the program as voters intended.
The ruling was in a lawsuit against the state brought by one would-be dispensary operator, Compassion First, LLC, which had opposed some of the rules for dispensary owners invented by the DHS. Gama threw out some of those rules, including a residency requirement.
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Humble tells New Times the state has no plans to appeal Gama's ruling. A new rule package based in part on Gama's order can be done "really quickly," with dispensary applications accepted in April, he predicts.
A lottery for the best applicants in each designated area will likely be held in June, following a 45-day review period, Humble says. And that means dispensaries by mid-summer.
On Horizon, Humble said the demand for dispensaries may be less than predicted, in part due to the temporarily derailed process in Arizona and concern of a crackdown by federal authorities.