Almost Open

The state is finally issuing dispensary licenses—but why did it take so damn long?

Back in the day, when hope was afoot, and the gleam in Arizona's collective medical-marijuana eye was bright, it seemed like dispensaries were coming soon.

The gleam slowly faded as the state's 30,000-plus cannabis patients were left waiting ... then waiting ... then waiting some more. But last week, in the hallowed halls of the state Department of Health Services, the waiting kinda-sorta ended when Arizona Organix of Glendale got the first dispensary license. The owners will need another couple of weeks for internal machinations before they can open, according to their lawyer, Ryan Hurley, who leads the medical-marijuana practice for Rose Law Group in Scottsdale.

"It's a great day for patients, and I'm glad we're making progress despite some of our elected officials up here trying to hold us back," said Hurley, who has other clients in the Phoenix area who are approaching inspection requests.

As of Friday morning, six dispensaries statewide had asked for approval to operate, including three in Tucson. A westside dispensary was scheduled for an inspection after my deadline, so it might be open by the time you read this. The Green Halo, near Interstate 10 and Wilmot Road, is basically ready to turn the key and open when the state sends an inspector, and another dispensary on the eastside was awaiting inspection.

The state recently trained extra inspectors to check dispensary locations, said DHS spokeswoman Laura Oxley.

"We anticipated we would have a rush of these," she said. She attributed some delays to paperwork, which the DHS wants to be perfect so no one fails inspection.

Ken Sobel, who plans to open the Green Halo on South Wilmot Road, had mixed feelings about the Arizona Organix license. The Green Halo asked for an inspection in September, but has been wrangling with state regulators since. State Attorney Generalissimo Tom Horne apparently decided there has to be a bathroom inside of every dispensary, not just in the building. So Sobel's dispensary was delayed by a plan revision. There were paperwork problems, too. In any event, Sobel is glad the state has issued a license, though he is disappointed that he hasn't been able to help Tucson patients as quickly as he planned.

"We're happy for anyone who is opening, but we're sad for our patients," he said. He wishes there was more communication among the state, municipalities and dispensary operators.

So it's encouraging that the state is finally issuing licenses. But the cynical side of me—the side who spent two decades covering politics and government in various jurisdictions and at various levels—insists we take stock. This program was approved by voters more than two years ago. It was stalled only by an apparent ignorance of the law by elected officials, including one who was elected specifically because of his knowledge of the law. Attorney Generalissimo Horne and Gov. Jan Brewer have been rejected more than once by judges, at one point getting a judicial tongue-lashing for even bringing a case to court.

I am inclined not to praise a government that first subverts the will of voters, and then stalls hundreds of jobs (millions of dollars) and thousands and thousands of compassionate offerings to people in need. I appreciate the movement on licensing dispensaries, but the snail's pace is leaving a distasteful trail of slime behind. This ain't my first rodeo, DHS, so you are having a hard time convincing me that the delays are justified. I smell bureaucratic foot-dragging and willful negligence of responsibility to get this program, in effect, to fail.

If Arizona keeps moving at this pace, before half of our dispensaries are even open, the federal government might just put the gleam back in our eye by lifting prohibition.

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