With five applications pending from people who want to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Nogales, and the possibility that state voters will legalize recreational pot in November, the city is finally moving to establish rules for where and when marijuana-selling businesses could operate.
The Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved recommending that the Nogales City Council adopt regulations regarding marijuana dispensaries, more than five years after the voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Program went into effect in April 2011.
“We’re closing a gap that has existed for some time,” Deputy City Attorney Michael Massee said.
Under the state’s medical marijuana program, there are two dispensary districts in Santa Cruz County: Nogales, and the Tubac-Patagonia district, which essentially covers all other areas of the county. The Tubac-Patagonia district has been home to the county’s only medical marijuana dispensary since the summer of 2013, when a facility opened on Circulo Mercado in Rio Rico.
If the Nogales City Council approves adding a new section related to marijuana dispensaries to the city’s development standards code, local dispensaries would have to adhere to the following rules:
• The facilities must be located within a general commercial zoning district.
• Hours of operation are restricted to between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.
• The location can’t be within 1,000 feet of a school, church, library or daycare center, if those locations were there prior to the dispensary’s application.
• The business must be in a permanent building. Mobile offices are prohibited.
• Offsite deliveries and drive-through sales are prohibited.
The regulations would apply to both medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational-pot stores if voters were to approve recreational use in the future. A measure to legalize recreational use and possession of small amounts of marijuana is expected to be on the ballot in November.
Applications for a medical marijuana dispensary in the Nogales district that were submitted to the Arizona Department of Health prior to the amendment will be grandfathered in, Massee said. In other words, if one of the pending applications were approved, it would not be subject to the new regulations.
As part of the application, Massee said, the applicant has to state whether the proposed location complies with city or county regulations. Currently, if the proposed location is in a commercially zoned area, then it complies with the city’s rules.
However, even in the absence of city regulations, the state has minimum rules governing the operation of marijuana dispensaries, including a requirement that the facilities be at least 500 feet from a school.
Massee told the commission Tuesday that the city has received interest from possible applicants and said there are currently five pending applications to open a dispensary in the Nogales district. Still, while the Arizona Department of Health Services is preparing to award a number of new dispensary licenses around the state, the rules for granting the licenses mean Nogales, with only 72 medical marijuana cardholders as of January, “wouldn’t even be considered,” said Wayne Tolbert, the state licensing team leader for medical marijuana.
“It will be based on qualifying patient densities – where the qualifying patients live,” Tolbert said. “So if they’re doing it by trying to help patients, Nogales would in no way get anything.”
By comparison, there were 195 medical marijuana cardholder in the Tubac-Patagonia district, according to a January 2016 report from the health services department.
‘Around the block’
Though the City Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved recommending the code amendment to the city council, Linda Rushton, who serves on the commission, said she felt it didn’t create enough space between potential dispensaries and areas like schools and churches.
“A thousand feet is an awfully short distance,” she said. “It’s like walking around the block.”
Massee said he hopes the city council will vote on the recommendation during its regular meeting next month.
The Santa Cruz County Planning and Zoning Commission began meeting to update its rules starting in January 2011, shortly after the medical marijuana initiative was approved by voters. In April 2011, the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require that medical marijuana dispensaries be located at least a half-mile from any public or private school, and set their hours of operation from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. Those rules do not apply to the City of Nogales or Town of Patagonia.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Clark.)