Topic: County officials urged not to issue permits for dispensaries
Maricopa County officials urged not to issue permits for medical-marijuana dispensaries
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery advised the Board of Supervisors this week against issuing permits to medical-marijuana dispensaries on county-controlled lands, fearing a backlash from the federal government.
Although Arizona's medical-marijuana program mostly will be run by the state Health Department in cooperation with cities and towns, Maricopa County officials plan to opt out in reaction to mounting federal pressure on states that have legalized medical pot.
County officials indicated they would heed Montgomery's advice if he drafts a formal legal opinion, which Montgomery said he plans to do in about a week.
Montgomery said he would not prosecute medical-marijuana cases because it is outside his jurisdiction. He said he consulted with the supervisors on the issue in his role as the county's legal adviser.
Last November, voters approved Proposition 203, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, which allows qualifying patients with certain debilitating medical conditions to use marijuana. But marijuana is not a federally approved drug.
Arizona is the 15th state to legalize medical pot and to join the ongoing national debate over conflicting state and federal marijuana laws.
Although the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009 released a memo discouraging prosecution of medical-marijuana users, federal pressures continue to mount on states that have legalized medical pot. U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke this month warned Arizonans they are still violating federal law by participating in the state's program, and they will not have any immunity from federal prosecution.
"I always hate to go against the will of the voters, but in this case, Dennis' letter is pretty compelling. And if Montgomery issues an opinion that mirrors the federal letter, I think it's something we have to heed," county Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said.
Montgomery said although the federal government clearly will not prosecute seriously ill patients using pot as medicine, the same legal "safe haven" does not exist for dispensary agents or local government employees who implement the state's law.
"I'm not comforted by a wink and a nod" from the federal government, Montgomery said, explaining why he is advising the county against issuing permits.
Prop. 203 allows qualifying patients to receive up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from dispensaries or to cultivate up to 12 marijuana plants if they live 25 miles or farther from a dispensary.
Montgomery has publicly opposed medical marijuana and was one of the most outspoken local officials who joined the anti-Prop. 203 campaign last fall. Montgomery said he still disagrees with the policy of legalizing medical marijuana and is concerned that dispensaries operating in Maricopa County will become "magnets of crime."
It is unclear what implications Burke's letter will have on the state's medical-marijuana program, or how the county's pending decision to prohibit dispensaries on county land would affect patients' access to marijuana in remote areas of the county.
The state Department of Health Services will begin accepting dispensary applications on June 1. There is one dispensary application pending with Maricopa County.
"We're still trying to figure out what the impact of the letter we got from the federal government is going to have. I think all those (federal warning letters to state officials) have put a layer of uncertainty on this program and all the other states' programs," DHS Director Will Humble said.
Prop. 203 allows local jurisdictions to impose "reasonable" zoning restrictions for dispensaries. The majority of cities and towns have come up with a zoning ordinance for medical-marijuana dispensaries, said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
If the county decides not to allow dispensaries on its land, that means cities and towns that encircle county land will have to work around it, Strobeck said.
Chris Jacques, Peoria's interim community-development director, said he would prefer that dispensaries locate within city boundaries rather than in county islands. The city's zoning ordinances have specific distance requirements for dispensaries, and the city would prefer to be able to regulate dispensaries, he said.
"If there was a proposal to have a dispensary in a county island, we would not like that because we've got strict controls over where dispensaries could be located," Jacques said.
The applications for dispensaries in Wickenburg all are within town boundaries and not in the sizable county islands in the area, said Steve Boyle, Wickenburg community-development director. Although Boyle said it is "discouraging" that Wickenburg would approve dispensaries against federal law, he said he does not anticipate the federal government cracking down on town officials for allowing dispensaries.
"It could happen," he said, "but our attorneys don't see it getting that drastic."