Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
In a small east-side strip mall that includes a martial-arts school and a dental office geared toward children, one of Tucson's first medical-marijuana dispensaries could soon open its doors.
About four miles away, in a free-standing, pink stucco building on the northwest corner of East Speedway and North Columbus Boulevard, sits another potential location.
Both sites meet the city's zoning requirements to open a dispensary, but because of where they're situated, only one can get state certification to operate.
But a snapshot is emerging as several operators have begun submitting applications to the city to ensure their prospective sites meet local regulations.
The state health department plans to issue the certificates based on statistical analysis areas called Community Health Analysis Areas, or CHAAs, that carve the state into 126 pieces. The recently adopted rules for medical pot call for the state to issue one certificate for a dispensary in each of the regions. Around Tucson, there are about a dozen of these areas.
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If only one qualifying application comes in for a given area, the state will grant the operator the certificate. But if more than one meets the requirements, the department plans to award the certificate randomly .
That's pitting prominent Tucson doctors against each other.
Dr. Brian Becker - who has a general-medicine practice in partnership with alternative-healing guru Dr. Andrew Weil - submitted a city zoning application to put a dispensary in an L-shaped shopping center at the southwest corner of North Kolb Road and East Speedway.
Reached by phone late last week, Becker said he's not ready to discuss in detail any potential dispensaries and that Weil isn't involved with the venture.
The medical-marijuana dispensary, which would fill a roughly 1,300-square-foot vacancy left by National Alamo Car Rental, isn't a welcome sight for at least one neighboring business.
James Pumarejo, who owns Success Martial Arts, said he has more than 100 students younger than 13 years old. While he said he believes Becker would run a legitimate operation, his clients don't want to drop off their kids next to a pot dispensary, he said.
"It would kill our business," Pumarejo said.
Pumarejo said he doesn't have any legal recourse, but would consider breaking his lease if the shop opens.
Just down Speedway, and in the same analysis area, a group that includes Dr. Evan Kligman, who runs Southwest Integrative Healthcare, submitted an application for a dispensary near North Columbus Boulevard. The building used to house a Sonus Hearing Care Center.
Kligman's group recruited John Wesley Miller, a prominent local builder of energy-efficient homes, to help find the building and make the needed upgrades to turn it into a dispensary.
Miller said he initially opposed the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, but that was before he talked to Kligman.
"I became better enlightened and felt better about being involved because of the integrity of the people involved," he said.
Kligman, the potential medical director of Desert Dispensaries, said marijuana has a place in the holistic approach to treating chronic pain, as it can prevent the need to use increasing dosages of pain-relieving opioids.
"It can help allay the severity of pain, especially with people that might have pain associated with cancer," said Kligman, who in the 1990s headed the University of Arizona's Department of Family and Community Medicine.
One potential neighbor has no objection to Desert Dispensaries opening up.
"It does not concern me because of the method in which it's dispensed," said Valerie Wright, the co-owner of Uncle Bob's Popcorn. "I think it's pretty heavily regulated."
Vicky Puchi-Saavedra, a vice president with Long Realty who is looking to get into the medical marijuana business, said she scouted locations thoroughly and talked with neighboring businesses to avoid any entanglements.
She said her group, Green Lantern Rx, plans to submit applications for five dispensaries and one growing facility.
So far, city documents show Puchi-Saavedra has submitted applications for an address on East Benson Highway near Irvington Road and another on North Oracle Road south of Tucson Mall.
The competition for locations that meet the city's zoning requirements has been fierce, especially considering only one dispensary in a given area will eventually open, Puchi-Saavedra said. She worked with Linda Morales, a consultant with The Planning Center, to find locations that meet Tucson's zoning requirements and scoured the streets to find vacant properties.
When the state established its rules for medical marijuana - which was approved by voters in November 2010 - it allowed for municipalities to restrict their locations.
In Tucson, the City Council passed zoning restrictions to keep the dispensaries away from schools, churches, child-care centers, libraries and public parks. The rules also aimed to keep them from locating near substance-abuse treatment or rehabilitation facilities.
Other local jurisdictions set up their own zoning requirements, with some requiring public hearings before the necessary permits could be issued.
Tucson doesn't require such hearings and has been seeing more interest from potential operators than other municipalities. Representatives from Pima County, Oro Valley and Sahuarita said they haven't received any written applications.
Marana has received one application, said Kevin Kish, general manager of the town's Develop-ment Services Department. A group called Progressive Herbal Care LLC is looking for the proper permit to build a 3,000-square-foot dispensary, which would include cultivation, near West Orange Grove and West River roads, Kish said.
When the state starts accepting applications from potential operators June 1, the applicant must sign an affidavit that says the location meets local zoning requirements.
And while several dispensary operators have already sought approval from the city to ensure they meet all the zoning requirements, others may be working behind the scenes. That's because, so far, the rules don't require any verification from the jurisdiction itself in the application.
But that may change, said Tom Salow, rules administrator with the Arizona Department of Health Services.
By Thursday, the state may require applicants to provide documentation from the municipality that their address meets zoning requirements, Salow said. The state also will likely require verification that the operator has permission from the property owner to run a dispensary at that site, Salow said. Each dispensary can have one growing facility, and those locations aren't restricted in the same way as dispensaries, Salow said. That's mainly because one cultivation site can provide marijuana for several dispensaries.
The health department will accept multiple applications for the same address, and that opens the door for landlords to draft several leases with different dispensary operators at one site.
The city has even received multiple inquiries about the same address. Chris Clonts, of the Scottsdale-based Rose Law Group, submitted a zoning compliance application for the same location, at the corner of North Kolb Road and Speedway, as Becker.
Both Clonts and Becker have submitted additional zoning applications with the city for dispensaries in other areas.
Greg Furrier, a retail broker with Picor Commercial Real Estate Services, said he's working with two landlords who've stacked as many as five leases onto addresses that may qualify for marijuana dispensaries. The lease becomes active only if one of the lessees gets state authorization to operate.
That's just the situation that Puchi-Saavedra said she's been working to avoid. For months, her group has pursued locations, she said. Recently, as competition heated up, landlords who learned their space met the zoning requirements turned to their real estate brokers to see if any other dispensary operators were interested.
With so few properties available, landlords who had been struggling with vacancies suddenly found substantial demand.
"It turned into a ridiculous nightmare with landlords wanting multiple applications and multiple leases for one location," Puchi-Saavedra said. "We're just wanting to work with landlords who'll work with us exclusively."
Is a pot dispensary proposed near your home? Map, Page A4.
'Budtenders' and pot ATMs
Details about how dispensaries will distribute medical marijuana to those who qualify are still in the works, but they will be tightly regulated by the state.
Vicky Puchi-Saavedra, who is looking to open as many as five dispensaries if she can get them state-certified, said she plans to employ "budtenders" - a play on the word bartender - to personally distribute marijuana to patients. The budtenders will go through training to ensure they know what types of marijuana strains work most effectively to deal with the pain and stress associated with various illnesses, she said.
In another approach, Kind Clinics, a consulting company that leads its clients through the entire process of opening a dispensary, is working with potential operators in Tucson that will distribute medical pot using a device similar to an automated teller machine.
The MedBox, as it's called, uses a qualifying patient's identification card and fingerprints to dispense marijuana. Upon identifying the patient, the MedBox displays the various available pot strains on a touch screen. Bruce Bedrick, the company's CEO, said he is working with several clients in Southern Arizona, though he declined to say how many. It is possible these MedBoxes will be popping up in Tucson dispensaries, he said.
Contact reporter Dale Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4197.