The two incorporated areas of Santa Cruz County are taking different approaches to marijuana sales after voters around the state – and locally – approved a ballot measure last November that legalized recreational pot use.
In a meeting last month, the Patagonia Town Council approved an ordinance that paves the way for marijuana shops to seek permits in the town. Elected officials in Nogales, on the other hand, used a city council meeting earlier this week to double down on their stance against allowing recreational marijuana sales – something the council prohibited in an ordinance passed in December.
Cities and towns around the state can’t stop people from smoking or using marijuana on private property after the ballot measure was approved, but they can block recreational pot stores from setting up shop and restrict use in public areas.
Patagonia’s ordinance does prohibit pot consumption on public property and in a “public or open space,” and it forbids any store near schools and certain other sites. But, besides those restrictions, the town’s ordinance sets up a process that could allow a business that receives a state marijuana license to also receive local approval.
Patagonia Mayor Andrea Wood said it wasn’t a hard choice.
“We don’t see any difference, really, between this and a bar,” she said, adding that a new store could bring in some tax dollars to the town government.
And, Wood said, “I think the community is in favor of it.”
The numbers back her up. About 73 percent of the town’s more than 700 voters chose “Yes” on Prop. 207, which legalized marijuana use for adults 21 and over. That made Patagonia voters among the most enthusiastic for the measure in Santa Cruz County.
Although opinion was somewhat more divided in other areas, all of the county’s 24 voting precincts ultimately voted in favor of the measure. Among the 11 precincts entirely within Nogales city limits, about 54 percent of the more than 5,700 ballots cast in last year’s general election supported Prop. 207. (Statewide, 60 percent of voters supported the ballot proposition.)
Nonetheless, the Nogales City Council wasted no time torpedoing the possibility of a marijuana shop in town at their first opportunity after the election.
“I don’t want to have that in the community and I don’t think that the people that I represent want to have it,” said then-Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr. at the council’s Dec. 2 meeting, when they passed an ordinance banning recreational marijuana shops from coming to town.
The stark differences in the ordinances seemed to underscore the differences between the two municipalities: Patagonia, a small town with an older population and a progressive streak; Nogales, a family-oriented city where conservative social values still hold sway, at least in the city council chambers.
And the different approaches may be largely symbolic. Recreational marijuana is now legal across Arizona – the most municipalities can do is keep sales out of town.
“The state made it legal, so it is what it is. And I don’t really have a problem with it,” said Vice-Mayor Michael Stabile, one of five Patagonia Town Council members who voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance on Jan. 27.
Aside from comments made by Varona, whose term on the council expired at the end of last year, elected officials in Nogales hardly talked about the issue before unanimously approving their own ordinance in December.
Then, this Wednesday, Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino resurfaced the issue at a council study session. He said the council had voted on the ban right after the election and suggested that, with two new members, they had a chance to decide if they wanted to “continue on the same path that we voted on in the past, or are we going to do anything different.”
It sounded as if the mayor was preparing for a possible change of course.
Instead, in a nearly hour-long discussion, city council members who’d been largely silent at the December meeting reiterated their support for the ban. The conversation quickly veered from the ordinance itself to pot use more generally.
“I think it would be a bad influence on our community… nothing good comes out of consuming drugs,” said Councilman Jose “Joe” Diaz.
“There are other ways of being happy,” added Councilman Saulo Bonilla, who was elected in November and sworn in last last month.
“Why would they call it recreational? It sounds like – recreational – it sounds like it’s something for fun,” asked Councilman Hector Bojorquez.
Bojorquez also asked if pot shops might bring crime to the area. To that, Robert Thompson, the acting city manager, said he’d seen a story on the news about a fight breaking out in the line outside of a marijuana store.
Councilwoman Liza Montiel, another new addition to the council this January, was the only one who appeared to strike a different tone. She probed her peers about their reasons for passing the ordinance, but didn’t go as far as contradicting the prevailing mood.
And in another area of apparent divergence with Patagonia, Nogales officials downplayed any economic impact that a marijuana shop could have in Nogales, where council members regularly lament the lack of sales tax revenue and sluggish local retail sector.
Bonilla said the city wasn’t going to “get rich” off marijuana taxes and Thompson said a quick calculation showed that a store would need to sell 400 ounces of pot per day to generate $1 million in annual tax revenues for the city, which seemed unlikely. Individual customers are limited to purchasing one ounce at a time at licensed marijuana shops.
Wood, the Patagonia mayor, told the NI that legal marijuana sales in the town could capture tax revenue that might otherwise be lost to other municipalities. “People that would be going to another city, Tucson or other places, their money is being spent up there,” she said.
And Vice-Mayor Stabile also said it could be an income source for Patagonia, which has been struggling with revenue due to the pandemic.
Permits still not distributed
In addition to Patagonia, Santa Cruz County appeared poised to pass rules that would permit a marijuana shop, with some zoning limits, in unincorporated areas outside of Nogales and Patagonia. The county has published notice of a public hearing set for March 2 related to proposed zoning ordinances.
But it’s not clear when a recreational marijuana store might open its doors in the local area.
The few stores already licensed to sell recreational marijuana in Arizona are mainly “dual licensees” – medical marijuana dispensaries now approved for both medical and “adult use” sales. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there aren't currently any medical marijuana dispensaries in Santa Cruz County.
Patagonia Town Manager Ron Robinson said he’d received about 20 requests for preliminary approval for a marijuana store, roughly 10 of which he signed off on after finding that the proposed properties met the guidelines set by the town’s ordinance.
Those prospective sellers can then take their application to ADHS, which is accepting early applications for a permit until March 9. If ADHS gives them a license, they’ll need to come back to Patagonia and seek a use permit for the property where they want to put the store.
From the pool of early applicants ADHS plans to randomly select licensees in several counties that currently have less than two medical dispensaries. Santa Cruz County appears set to receive one or two licenses through that process.
After the early application process, ADHS plans to give out 26 licenses under what it’s calling a Social Equity Ownership Program that aims to give licenses to business owners from groups historically harmed by the enforcement of marijuana laws. Rules for that program are still in development and it isn’t clear who will qualify.
Further on, the department could grant additional licenses. The ballot measure does place one limit on the total number of licenses that can be granted – there can’t be more than one recreational marijuana store for every 10 pharmacies.
(This story has been updated to include ADHS information that there are currently no medical marijuana dispensaries in Santa Cruz County.)