By Nick Worth
In an anticlimactic ending to a hotly contested issue, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a special use permit for Overgaard Compassion Care to operate a medical marijuana dispensary at a location 11 miles east of Overgaard on Highway 277.
It was the third attempt by OCC owners to secure a permit from the county. The first two attempts were met with stiff opposition by citizens of the Heber-Overgaard area because the company wanted to move into a vacant building located on Highway 260 in Overgaard near other businesses and close to the Overgaard Air Park.
In the first attempt on Nov. 27 of last year, Assistant County Manager Homero Vela told the board the company was in compliance with all state and county requirements, that the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office had no objections and that Navajo County can have up to four dispensaries, with one for each Community Health Analysis Area (CHAA).
Vela also noted at the time that if a dispensary is not located within 25 miles of a patient’s home, that patient is allowed to cultivate medical marijuana for his own use and that if the special use permit was denied, it would open a large swath of land where uncontrolled cultivation of marijuana could then be allowed for patients with a medical marijuana card, causing an enforcement problem. He said the OCC dispensary would be a controlled operation and recommended approval of the permit.
Jeff Quinn, representing Overgaard Compassion Care, which is owned by Michael DeCarlo, told the board in November that OCC “…is not a fly-by-night operation selling out of the back of a truck. People will not be hanging around smoking marijuana. There are guidelines.”
He also said there were very few viable locations in Heber-Overgaard that met the requirements for separation from schools, churches and parks.
Former Supervisor and Vice Chairman Jerry Brownlow said the board had received 18 letters speaking out against the issuance of the special use permit and five letters in favor of it.
The board then heard from several residents of the Heber-Overgaard area who spoke out strongly against the location of a medical marijuana dispensary in their town. They expressed fears that the business would attract violent crime, a fear shared by all 11 of the people at the meeting to speak out against the dispensary. Others questioned whether the business would be regulated properly, and a school board member told the board it would just make drugs more available in the community.
The board then went into executive session to consider the issue and receive legal advice, and upon return to open session, denied the request for the permit.
The motion to deny the special use permit was approved by a 3-1 vote, with Brownlow casting the dissenting vote.
Overgaard Compassion Care made a second attempt to obtain a special use permit at a board meeting on Feb. 26 and met with the same results as on the first try, for the same reasons.
At the meeting, the board heard a review of the issue from Planning and Zoning Director Trent Larson for the benefit of new board members Dawnafe Whitesinger and Sylvia Allen. Larson told the board the sheriff’s office had no objections to locating the dispensary in Overgaard and the Navajo County Attorney’s Office voiced no legal concerns with the business, provided it meets and abides by all regulations.
He also said the Planning and Zoning Department had no objections to having the dispensary at that location, and that the county had received more than 180 emails and letters in support of the dispensary and only 25 against. He told the board OCC had sponsored an open public meeting since the last board meeting, and that the applicants had agreed to a number of stipulations in an attempt to address public concerns over the business.
Among the self-imposed stipulations agreed to by OCC were: the dispensary would be closed to the public; the building façade and interior were to be renovated to resemble a medical office; there would be no reference to marijuana on the signage, including no use of the color green; the business hours of operation would be limited to avoid exposure to children; there would be state of the art security in compliance with Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) requirements, plus patients would have ID cards and would have to be “buzzed in” to the building; OCC would establish a community liaison position to listen to concerns of the community and collaborate with community leaders as needed; the special use permit would be subject to a review after one year, at which time it could be revoked if the board of supervisors found any problems; no minors under 18 would be admitted without a parent or guardian, even if they had a medical marijuana card; all persons must have a patient ID card; loitering will be strictly prohibited; and use in public is illegal, so violators will be reported to police by dispensary personnel if seen using marijuana in the area.
“There will be no impact on the neighborhood,” said Adam Trenk of the Rose Law Group representing OCC. He said there are 119 patients in this Community Health Analysis Area (CHAA). “If each patient came twice per month there would be less than 25 visits to the dispensary per day.”
In the public hearing portion of the meeting, several of the same citizens again expressed opposition to the OCC permit, citing reasons ranging from fear of crime to the suspicion that OCC was not really a non-profit, to the fact that a school bus dropped children off at the location.
Lorin Porter, a school board member, told the board the site had not been an actual designated bus stop, but that the bus was stopping there anyway.
“So we decided, in order to protect ourselves, to designate it as one,” he said.
Heather DeCarlo of Overgaard was the only person at the second meeting to speak in favor of the dispensary. DeCarlo told the board she is a seven-year cancer survivor and that while going through chemotherapy, she was forced to take medications that caused her to become nauseous.
“I was losing weight and I had no appetite,” DeCarlo said. She said doctors kept giving her new prescriptions in order to try to survive the treatments and that she was on the verge of quitting the chemo-therapy treatments, but finally tried marijuana on the advice of one of her doctors. She said the marijuana helped her get through the last two rounds of chemotherapy.
“This does truly work and it’s the only thing that helped me be alive today,” said DeCarlo. “I do not use recreational marijuana. I only used it for medicinal purposes.
Despite DeCarlo’s testimony, the board went on to again deny the special use permit by a unanimous vote, citing the public outcry, the fact that use of marijuana is still against federal law, and the general welfare and safety of the public.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Larson told the board OCC has again asked for a special use permit, this time for a location 11 miles northeast of Overgaard on Highway 277. The only other buildings at the location are a sawmill owned by Porter’s company, Precision Pine and Timber, and a large radio tower. Overgaard Compassion Care is leasing the site from Porter.
Larson told the board the plans for the site had been reviewed and no objections were noted by the sheriff’s office, the health department, the county attorney’s office, the county engineering department and the Navajo County Flood Control District.
Supervisor Jonathan Nez asked the public audience in the room if anyone had anything to say about issuing the permit and no one responded.
Supervisor Tenney then addressed OCC owner DeCarlo.
“I think it says a lot that no one is here to speak out against this location,” Tenney said. He went on to thank DeCarlo for listening to the board and to the public.
“I didn’t vote for medical marijuana and I don’t believe in it, but it is the law in Arizona,” Tenney said. He then moved to approve the special use permit for OCC and Allen seconded.
The vote in favor was unanimous.
“It was a long haul but everyone came together to solve the issue,” said DeCarlo. “We understood the concerns of the community and we found this place out by the sawmill.”
DeCarlo said medical marijuana dispensaries are not yet common businesses in the state.
“Obviously this is something new to every community,” he said. “This (the location at the sawmill) should make everybody happy.”
DeCarlo said OCC plans to bring in a pre-manufactured building for the dispensary since they don’t own the land.
“We plan to start as soon as possible,” he said.
By Nick Worth