Lawmakers push to keep rural marijuana dispensary operators from moving to where grass is greener

Rep. Vince Leach (Capitol Media Services 2017 file photo by Howard Fischer)

Rep. Vince Leach (Capitol Media Services 2017 file photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are moving to keep medical marijuana dispensaries in the rural areas of the state.

On a 5-4 vote Monday, the House Committee on Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs approved legislation which says that those who were the first to open marijuana stores following the 2010 voter approval of Proposition 203 cannot move outside the areas where they first set up shop. So if they agreed to serve the San Manuel area, they would be pretty much stuck there.

But it’s not that Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, the sponsor of HB 2029 particularly likes having dispensaries in the rural areas of his district which extends into Pinal County.

Leach pointed out that the 2010 law says anyone legally entitled to use medical marijuana must purchase it from a state-licensed and regulated dispensary.

But there is an exception for those who live more than 25 miles from such a shop: They can grow their own. What that means, Leach told colleagues, is that as the owners of rural dispensaries seek more financially fertile sites in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, that will leave large areas of the state where residents would be free to grow plants in their homes and yards, all unregulated by the state.

Leach said it already is happening. He said a dispensary that had been in Florence is now gone.

Monday’s vote came over the objections of Kevin DeMenna who lobbies on behalf of the dispensary owners.

He said that changing the rules now -- and precluding his clients from taking advantage of better locations -- would amount to an unconstitutional taking of their property rights. And that could land the whole issue in court.

The issue has its roots in the 2010 law which allows those with a doctor’s recommendation and state-issued ID card to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. That same law also directed the state Department of Health Services to allow a certain number of dispensaries.

That number turned out to be the number of “community health analysis areas.’’ If there was more than one applicant for any area there had to be a lottery; if not, the sole applicant got the right to sell marijuana in that area.

With that distribution, virtually every area of the state became within 25 miles of a dispensary. State health officials estimated in 2014 that covered 98 percent of marijuana users.

But Colby Bower, lobbyist for the health department, said the agency’s rules also say that anyone who had been in an area for three years is free to move anywhere else in the state, assuming the applicant could get the proper zoning.

That’s what’s happening now -- and what Leach is seeking to stop.

“If you take the dispensaries out of small towns as San Manuel, Oracle, Florence, and you move them to where the population is, and the wealth base, you’ll see that they’ll be moving into Scottsdale, Phoenix and the like,’’ he said.

Leach said he has no problem with those larger communities having more dispensaries

“If they want to accept as many as they want, that is up to them,’’ he said. “That is local control.’’

His issue is the flip side.

“We’ll be turning rural Arizona into an open-grow because the dispensaries will be leaving,’’ Leach said. And it’s not just a user with a flower pot: He noted the law permits someone to grow up to 12 plants at once.

DeMenna told lawmakers the state can’t change the rules now.

He said some of the people who invested in rural dispensaries years ago did so with the understanding that they could sell their dispensary licenses after three years to someone who might want to make a go of it in an urban area. And DeMenna said while the dispensaries are technically non-profit operations, they are worth money to those who own them and pay themselves a salary, with licenses recently selling for $2 million to $3 million.

That argument was enough to convince Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale. He said the dispensary owners are running and business and the state should not be imposing new restrictions.

But the majority of the panel thought otherwise, setting the state for a vote of the full House.

Leach could have his hands full there.

Because the medical marijuana law was approved by the voters, lawmakers can make only those changes that “further the purpose’’ of the original law. And even if Leach can meet that hurdle, amendments like this require a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate, something that could prove difficult to get.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia


Comments are not posted immediately. Submissions must adhere to our Use of Service Terms of Use agreement. Rambling or nonsensical comments may not be posted. Comment submissions may not exceed a 200 word limit, and in order for us to reasonably manage this feature we may limit excessive comment entries.

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.