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Planning Progress 

By enacting changes suggested by the Planning Commission, Tucson could finally catch-up on cannabis biz

Tucson last week took a step closer to allowing some big changes in the medical marijuana world, but some of the changes suggested by the advisory Planning Commission seem unlikely to make the cut.

The city asked the commission, a board of appointed volunteers that advises the City Council on many aspects of where, when and how businesses can operate, for advice on several rule changes. The commission's message to the city: You're too uptight; let freedom ring.

The sweeping changes would put Tucson squarely at the forefront of Arizona cannabis business friendliness by extending dispensary hours, allowing deliveries, eliminating a key restriction on commercial grows and allowing cannabis kitchens in the same buildings as dispensaries or grows.

After meeting several times in recent months with patients, business owners and others in the cannabis community, the City Council told the city staff to draw up two recommended changes – eliminate grow sizes in industrial areas and expand dispensary hours. But after hearing from several cannabis business owners and patients, the city staff suggested more changes and the commission even more.

Patient Michael Robbins has been on disability since 2010, and he wants the city to loosen the rules, for the patients and business owners.

"At the end of the day, there are people who benefit from this, and anything you can do to make it easier is OK by me," he told the commission.

The commission's suggestions:

Hours and deliveries: The city staff recommended that the council allow dispensaries to be open from the current 9 a.m.-7 p.m. to 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Hours vary across the state, with Peoria being the least restrictive (8 a.m.-9 p.m.). Likening dispensaries to Walgreen's, the panel suggested 7 a.m.-midnight. This seems unlikely to pass, but then I didn't expect even the Planning Commission to suggest it. There was a wave of grins among dispensary owners in the audience when the panel voted to suggest midnight closing, but I doubt many dispensaries would stay open that late. Possibly only one – the Downtown dispensary owners in the audience when the panel voted to suggest a midnight closing, but I doubt many dispensaries would stay open that late. Possibly only one—the Downtown Dispensary a block off of Fourth Avenue—would see a significant boost from late-night hours.

The city now prohibits deliveries and recommended allowing them for hospices and other dispensaries, but the commission recommends the city allow deliveries to any cardholder. I think this is also unlikely to pass. I suspect the council will shy away from allowing drivers to criss-cross the city with meds. There's no harm in it (people have been doing it here for decades), but I don't think the city will go there. I think the council will go back to the recommended delivery to hospices. And other care facilities and disabled patients.

Cultivation: The council suggested eliminating the 3,000-square-foot size limit on commercial grows and allowing kitchens in the same space (and in dispensaries). The limit is a huge burden for cannabis businesses, because it largely prevents any Tucson dispensary from getting meds locally. The city only allows dispensary operators to have tiny grow rooms that don't meet their needs, but they can buy from other dispensaries, some of which have gigantic grows in cities with no limits. That sends money and jobs to Phoenix, Flagstaff or Peoria, which have no limits. The cultivation limit and kitchen restrictions were bad ideas when they were written, and I think the city will eliminate them.

Setbacks: The city now limits commercial grows only in a very few areas, because they can't be near schools, parks, churches, libraries, substance abuse treatment centers or daycare facilities. The state's only restriction is that they be at least 500 feet from schools. Eliminating all local restrictions on grows in industrial areas dramatically increases the number of available grow locations. I think the city will go for this one.

It wasn't so much surprising that the commission approved the changes as it was that they expanded them far beyond what the city staff recommended. That's a good thing. It tells me the commission is doing its job, offering the business community a more viable environment.

Getting into the marijuana business is hard enough because of state and federal law. There are a hundred risks that simply don't exist in other industries. No one is telling pizza shop owners they can't open next to churches. They can be near schools. They can be near parks. They can be pretty much as big (Reilly) or small (Brooklyn) as they want. The medical marijuana deserves equal treatment.

So I agree wholeheartedly with the Planning Commission on all counts—let freedom ring.

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