Pima County is set to consider changes to zoning regulations for marijuana dispensaries.
The changes include opening industrial and commercial zones to potential marijuana cultivation and production sites, according to an April 13 memo County Administrator Jan Lesher sent out that outlines the changes in broad strokes.
The memo also said the county would consider opening rural areas for cultivation as well, something prohibited in the city.
Further, the county is considering treating social equity licenses the same as established medical/recreational dispensaries. That also differs from city rules. The Tucson City Council voted unanimously to determine a special zoning designation for social equity dispensaries, a process that will last six months.
Pima County released the proposed changes in an Instagram post that features a photo of Sean Penn in his role as stoner Jeff Spicoli in the 80s cult classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
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The proposed changes still have a way to go before becoming official, said Chris Poirier, a county planning official.
He said the plan is expected to go before the county’s planning and zoning commission be fore the end of May. How soon it gets to the Board of Supervisors depends on public reaction.
Poirier said the county’s strict rules on dispensaries and cultivation/production sites pre-dates the state’s approval of medical marijuana.
“We wrote our zoning rules before medical marijuana was even approved by the voters,” Poirier said, referring to passage of Prop. 203 in 2010, which established Arizona’s medical marijuana program. “So there was a lot of concerns, primarily from our county attorney and some of our law enforcement, that this could be fairly unregulated and potentially problematic.”
Those fears turned out to be mostly unfounded, and the county’s proposal to allow for more areas to house marijuana-related businesses and industry should bring it to parity with other counties in the state, he said.
And now that the state has established a recreational adult-use program as well, Poirier said that from the county’s perspective it makes sense to treat social equity dispensary licenses the same as established dispensaries.
“From a zoning standpoint, purely from land use purposes, we don’t see any difference between a medical, recreational or social equity in terms of how they’re going to operate,” he said. “How they’re going to feel, how they’re going to impact a neighborhood, how they impact surrounding land uses. They’re all the same.”
Some cities in the state, including Tucson, have chosen to subject social equity licensees to a special zoning process, citing the unique, recreational-only nature of those licenses.
Prop. 207 legalized recreational adult-use cannabis use in Arizona in 2020 and created 26 additional social equity dispensary licenses. However, medical dispensaries established before 2020 who petitioned to also carry a dual recreational license, lacked the law to create a mechanism for social equity operators to apply for a medical license.
That distinction has created a headache of proposed zoning changes, like the one in the city for new dispensary and cultivation site operators, according to Demitri Downing, CEO and founder of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association.
“The whole situation is just patently absurd,” Downing said, criticizing the city for creating an “undesirable home for social equity applicants, for social equity license holders, which is the situation right now.”
Downing praised Pima County, as well as Flagstaff, for creating what he called “do no harm” regulations that, short of being “welcoming” to potential marijuana businesses and industry, at least don’t “muck things up and get in the way.”
“It’s just kind of ridiculous to think that these dispensaries somehow should be rezoned or even more zoned than the others. But you know, Flagstaff and Pima County have shown Tucson the way.”
Still Poirier said that, because of the limited amount of dispensary licenses in the state, he doesn’t expect more than two or three new dispensary or cultivation sites to pop up, even with the more liberal zoning rules.
“There’s not a lot of licenses to begin with, so I think unincorporated Pima County, we would expect anecdotally to see two or three of these things, whether they’re a dispensary or a cultivation or a manufacturing site,” Poirier said. “I mean, if that’s an influx, I guess it’s more than zero.”
Edward Celaya is a cannabis writer and host of the “Here Weed Go!” podcast. He graduated from Pima Community College and the University of Arizona and has been with the Arizona Daily Star since May 2019.