Some East Valley cities are weighing restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries, fearing the shops could proliferate if voters approve a November ballot initiative that legalizes some uses of the drug.
The prescription pot shops have exploded in some California cities and have irked even supporters of the substance. Mesa and Tempe officials are studying whether they should have zoning regulations in the works by election time so the shops can't simply open any place they'd like.
Mesa has begun to study the issue at the request of some members of the City Council. They want to avoid seeing the shops dominate some parts of town just as massage parlors and payday loan stores have in recent years. While Mesa eventually restricted placement of new payday loan stores, it couldn't do anything about the existing clusters.
"I think the council would like to understand what the options are and how quickly we could do it," Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh said. "We want to have that in place as much ahead of time as possible just to avoid misunderstanding. I don't want every empty check cashing place to become a dispensary."
If voters approve Proposition 203, Arizonans could use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. Patients could grow their own or buy from dispensaries regulated by the Arizona Department of Health Services. The number of dispensaries would be limited to one for every 10 licensed pharmacies, which translates to about 124 marijuana dispensaries today.
Fears of marijuana shops being everywhere are overblown, Prop. 203 campaign manager Andrew Myers said.
"If they're concerned about that, then they haven't read the law," Myers said.
The shops cannot be in residential areas or within 500 feet of a school, and the initiative allows cities to approve reasonable zoning regulations beyond what's in state law.
Myers noted that critics of medicinal marijuana have pointed to the nearly 1,000 dispensaries that sprouted in Los Angeles County - reportedly more than the number of Subway shops and Starbucks combined in the same area.
"We designed the initiative with those concerns in mind," Myers said. "We don't want to repeat what's happened in California."
Several cities are looking at their own regulations, Myers said, including Phoenix and Tucson. Tempe has started initial work on the issue, city spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said. Chandler will wait until after the election to determine if any action is necessary, city spokesman Jim Phipps said.
Small and large cities are working through the Arizona League of Cities and Towns on a model ordinance that any community could adopt, said league executive director Ken Strobeck. Communities would like to have something ready by election time, he said.
"I think all the polling is pointing toward likely passage and we definitely want to be ready so that it can be implemented quite rapidly should that proposition pass," Strobeck said.
Arizona voters approved medicinal marijuana in 1996 and 1998, only to have the measures overturned.
Mesa City Councilman Scott Somers said he wants the city to be ready for dispensaries because he expects voters will approve the drug. Somers, a paramedic, questions how much of the California medicinal marijuana industry is secretly - or not so secretly - catering to recreational users. He'd like to evaluate whether patients could get the drug only from licensed pharmacists in traditional drug stores, rather than from marijuana-only shops that are more like bars than medical establishments.
"I'm very wary of approving prescription drugs by voter approval. I think it's a bad idea," Somers said. "But if it's going to be approved, then it should be dispensed the same method as any other prescription medicine."