PHOENIX — Arizona's first medical marijuana dispensaries are going to get more time to open their doors.
In a 15-page ruling Wednesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner said state rules spell out that those authorized to sell the drugs must be operating within one year of getting the go-ahead. That year ran out in June but was previously extended by Warner until next week.
But Warner said there appear to be good reasons why some of 98 organizations given permission to sell the drug have been unable to open their doors by the new deadline. So he blocked state Health Director Will Humble from rescinding the authorizations, at least for now.
Part of the reason is that Warner noted there is currently no process for a would-be dispensary owner to seek an extension, no matter how good the reason.
So the judge also directed Humble to re-craft his rules to provide some sort of appeals process for those who cannot meet the deadlines. And he said no one can have an authorization revoked until those rules are in place.
Warner said, though, he is not ordering Humble to automatically give extensions to everyone once the rules are in place. Warner said there may be circumstances where the delays were due to decisions made by the dispensary operators.
Wednesday's ruling most immediately affects 17 communities where those given dispensary authorizations have said they have run into trouble. The range from Dolan Springs in Mohave County and Show Low in northeast Arizona into Phoenix, Mesa and Chandler and down to Benson.
But the rules Humble has been ordered to adopt could come into play elsewhere as the state authorizes more dispensaries in the future.
Arizona voters approved a law in 2010 which says that people with certain medical conditions, and a doctor's recommendation, can get a state-issued identification card allowing them to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The most recent figures show close to 40,000 applications have been approved.
That law also envisions a network of up to 125 state-licensed dispensaries to grow and sell the drug to cardholders and their caregivers.
Last year the state awarded authorizations for 98 areas — there were no applications for some, such as on tribal reservations — with some of these being chosen by lottery when there were multiple applicants.
But the rules also required them to be operating by June 7 to get the required annual renewal. Otherwise they lose those authorizations to someone else.
That brought complaints from some who said they just could not comply. In some cases, local jurisdictions refused to provide the necessary zoning.
That even included a directive by Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to local officials not to provide dispensary applicants with the paperwork they needed to show they had the necessary permits. He contended the 2010 law was preempted by federal drug laws and not valid and public employees could not cooperate in opening a dispensary.
A trial judge declared his action invalid. That case is now on appeal.
Attorney Paul Conant said his clients faced other problems.
“Maybe a landlord won't rent to you because they're worried about the law,” he said, including the possibility that federal drug officials could seize the property. That's because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although there have been no federal prosecutions to date of either dispensary owners or marijuana cardholders.
Warner extended the deadline until Aug. 6 while he considered the case. And now, with the injunction, the dispensary owners who cannot meet that deadline will get more time.
How long, though, remains to be seen.
Conant said no authorization can be taken away until the new rules setting up an appeal process for delayed completion are in place. And state health officials say that process will take months.
Warner said those rules must include specific criteria for Humble to decide whether to provide a dispensary renewal. The judge said he will leave it up to the health chief to decide what is appropriate.
But the judge did say that the delays cannot be of the applicant's own decision-making process.
Warner pointed out that some of the dispensary owners said they were unable to meet the deadline because of the uncertainties created by Montgomery's lawsuit. He said that resulted in some property owners being unwilling to take the risk.
“But these are the risks of pioneering in a new field,” the judge said. “And they were well known to those who chose to be in the first generation of medical marijuana dispensaries.”
And Warner said that the number of applications received to operate dispensaries show that “many deemed the potential reward worth the risk.”
Conant said dispensary owners hoping for further delay will still have to show “serious, diligent efforts” to get their doors open.
“This is not a signal to operators who aren't open that they can just sit back and relax,” Conant said. “They still need to be working every day to try to get everything done to comply with the regulations.”