Sunday, April 10, 2011

Medical marijuana: An unexpected fight

Gayle Palms
Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic Ahwatukee herbalist Gayle Palms talks about the benefits of the chaparral plant, one of many herbs she stocks at the Phoenix Holistic Health Center.

Gayle Palms says she has a team of legal and medical experts, a business plan and the $150,000 Arizona requires to open a medical-marijuana dispensary.

She knew it would be a challenge to win one of about 125 certificates for a facility that the state is expected to issue this year. But what Palms didn't expect were challenges from her own community - and the absence of a local landlord willing to rent to her.

The Ahwatukee Foothills resident wants to move a wellness center she already owns in the community where she has lived for three years to a nearby shopping center with zoning that would allow her to also run a medical-marijuana dispensary.

She envisions a new center where patients with a variety of ailments can be treated with herbs, acupuncture, massage and - for those with the proper doctor's referral and state ID - marijuana in liquid or aerosol forms.

But as Palms puts the final touches on her application for a dispensary certificate, she finds her plans already being challenged by a lack of community consensus on where medical marijuana should be sold. On Thursday, the state starts taking applications from cancer patients and others who want to use the drug to reduce pain, nausea and conditions like muscle spasms.

Many potential dispensary owners are in the early stages of getting their business plans and certificate applications together. But some who are further along in the process have been surprised by the chilly reception they are getting from neighborhoods and landlords.

"It's a challenge, frankly, to find a receptive landlord," said Joe Yuhas, co-founder of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, a trade group for the Arizona medical-marijuana industry. "It's a new industry, and folks don't understand it."

Last month, golf-equipment manufacturer Ping threatened to leave a north Phoenix community it has occupied for 45 years because of a medical-marijuana dispensary that was approved nearby.

In Flagstaff, former art gallery owner David Grandon is part of a team of local professionals that wants to open a dispensary called the Grass Roots Wellness Center in a shopping center in the northern Arizona city. But they are struggling to find a landlord and a bank that will do business with them.

"Flagstaff is a small town, and we want this done right," Grandon said. "We are not trying to get the foot in the door to legalize marijuana. But what we are finding is landlords and banks have already been approached multiple times by people who are speaking wellness center but have Bob Marley playing in the background."

Other potential dispensary applicants in Phoenix suburbs acknowledged they are also facing leasing and business challenges, but declined to talk.

"Right now it's a very sensitive issue," one said.

An Ahwatukee resident, commercial real-estate broker and Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee member Max Masel says he has have no problem with a dispensary in a shopping center.

"I'd like to see a dispensary in Ahwatukee - we have 70,000 people here," Masel said. "I think shopping centers are the logical place for medical-marijuana dispensaries. Where else are they going to go?"

But other influential residents don't want medical marijuana anywhere nearby.

Doug Cole, a political consultant and chairman of the village planning committee, said medical marijuana belongs in industrial areas.

"I just don't want to see one at Elliot Road and 48th Street," he said. "Medical marijuana is legal, but right now no one knows what the outcome of all of this will be."

Palms, who worked as a loan officer at a bank before studying herbal medicine and opening a wellness clinic in Seattle a decade ago, says her conservative, business-oriented background should be evidence to Ahwatukee that the medical-marijuana dispensary she wants to open would be a health center, not a head shop.

"We want to educate people on the medical use of marijuana," Palms said. "We don't want people to use it recreationally."

She has owned and run the Phoenix Holistic Health Center at 4747 E. Elliot Road in Ahwatukee for two years, yet she can't get an appointment with a leasing agent.

"Landlords just hang up the phone on me," Palms said.

Alan Zell, owner of Zell Commercial Real Estate Services, which represents both tenants and landlords in a number of Ahwatukee shopping centers, was not surprised by that.

He said he doesn't think the Phoenix village is the right place for medical marijuana. "It's not the right image we want to present as a company," he said.

Zell said potential dispensary owners should look for locations in shopping centers that might have vacancies because they are somewhat run down, in less than prime locations or that lack major anchor tenants. "There just aren't that many of those in Ahwatukee," he said.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who represents Ahwatukee Foothills, predicts the community will eventually have one dispensary - but stopped short of predicting where it will be. Ahwatukee only has a handful of shopping centers that have the C-2 or higher level of zoning that Phoenix requires for dispensaries. Most of those centers are along Interstate 10 between Ray Road and Chandler Boulevard.

The Arizona Medical Marijuana Association is in the early stages of pulling together a team of bankers, credit-card processors, security companies and human-resources providers willing to work with dispensary owners.

Yuhas and Vanessa Ryan, another member of Ahwatukee's village planning committee, said if dispensaries can't get their businesses up and running, neighborhoods might see residents growing their own marijuana plants.

Arizona law allows people who need medical marijuana to grow it in a secure area if there is not a dispensary within 25 mles of the patient's home. It's a concern in 36-square-mile Ahwatukee which is still a part of Phoenix but is surrounded on three sides by open Gila River Indian Community land and the South Mountain Preserve.

Tribe officials will not allow a dispensary on the reservation for various reasons and have asked neighboring municipalities not to allow dispensaries within one mile of their border with the Gila River Reservation.

Ryan said she supports an Ahwatukee dispensary because she doesn't like the idea of marijuana growing outdoors, no matter how secure the backyard facility might be.

by Cathryn Creno The Arizona Republic Apr. 10, 2011 12:00 AM

Medical marijuana: An unexpected fight

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