Feb 252011

By Tammy Gray-Searles —

A new zoning ordinance regulating the location of medical marijuana dispensaries was approved in a 4-1 vote by the Navajo County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The ordinance restricts dispensaries to certain commercial zones, requires issuance of a special use permit, sets distances from schools and places where minors congregate, and prohibits production that would supply marijuana statewide.

Supervisor Jesse Thompson cast the lone dissenting vote, noting that he believes there are too many unknown factors. Thompson explained that he does not believe the county or the state is prepared to deal with medical marijuana, and he would like to see more enforcement of drug laws.

“We don’t even know how to deal with liquor, how are we going to know how to deal with this?” he said, referring to the social and economic problems caused by the legal consumption of alcohol.

County Attorney Brad Carlyon explained that a zoning ordinance is the first step in making sure medical marijuana is properly regulated. He noted that there are still a lot of questions to be answered regarding the new law, especially as it relates to businesses and employees legally authorized to use marijuana.

“We’re going to have to see how this evolves,” he remarked.

He also told the board that the zoning ordinance is similar to those being considered or adopted by other counties and municipalities, and that it is in compliance with state law.

Carlyon pointed out that although the state law has changed, under federal law, marijuana is still an illegal drug.

“It’s up to the federal government to decide whether to enforce it or not,” he explained. “They have not enforced it in other states where there are medical marijuana laws, but it’s still illegal according to federal law. Who knows how it’s going to all shake out?”

Under the zoning ordinance approved by the board, home cultivation by a patient or caregiver is allowed in any zoning district, as allowed by rules adopted by the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS). Dispensaries may only be located in commercial-residential and industrial zones. Dispensary offsite cultivation facilities may only be located in A-general, commercial-residential and industrial zones. In the case of both a dispensary and cultivation site, a special use permit is required.

Dispensaries and cultivation sites cannot be located within 1,500 feet of other dispensaries or cultivation sites, and they also cannot be within 1,500 feet of a church, school, day care center, preschool, nursery, public park, playground, public recreational facility or adult oriented business.

The ordinance does note that a dispensary or cultivation site is not in violation of the ordinance if a church, school or other distance-restricted site is opened within 1,500 feet after establishment of the dispensary or cultivation site. The board did, however, amend the adult oriented business zoning ordinance to prohibit such businesses from locating within 1,500 feet of a dispensary or cultivation site.

Under the ordinance, cultivation sites “shall be associated exclusively with a medical marijuana dispensary or dispensaries located in Navajo County…,” meaning that they can supply only Navajo County dispensaries and not other dispensaries throughout the state.

Prior to approving the new ordinance, the board held a public hearing to receive input from citizens. No members of the public came forward.