PHOENIX - State health officials selected the first 97 potential operators of medical marijuana dispensaries Tuesday amid threats of litigation on multiple fronts.
The voter initiative allowing the sale of medical marijuana provides for 126 such dispensaries distributed among the state's "community health analysis areas."
Sixty-eight of those areas were hotly contested, drawing a total of 404 applicants. Winners in those areas were selected through a random lottery. Another 29 areas drew only one applicant each.
Two areas had bidders but none was selected because of legal disputes. The remaining areas had no applicants.
By law, the state cannot identify the successful applicants or even the locations where they plan to operate.
The only people who will get a list are the nearly 30,000 Arizonans who have state-issued cards allowing them to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks to treat specified medical conditions.
However, one Tucson lottery winner was located by the Arizona Daily Star.
Vicky Puchi-Saavedra, a real estate agent, applied in several Tucson areas, She plans to set up shop at 4529 S. Sixth Ave., north of East Irvington Road.
The site is the home of Polanco's Furniture. The building's owner, who runs the furniture store, is looking to relocate, and the "pharmacy" will eventually replace the store, Puchi-Saavedra said.
"I'm meeting with my builder first thing tomorrow morning," said Puchi-Saavedra, who found out online her application was picked Tuesday, and now must renovate to meet stringent state security and other requirements. "It's almost like rebuilding Fort Knox," Puchi-Saavedra said.
She said she doesn't know how long it will take to win state approval of the plans, making it hard to say when the dispensary will open.
Health Director Will Humble said he believes the first shops could have their doors open by the end of the month. He said some applicants, though, will face delays in getting leases and setting up security and inventory systems and may not be open until spring.
But if Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery gets his way, there won't be any dispensaries by then.
Montgomery said Tuesday that he hopes to get a court ruling voiding the entire 2010 voter-approved medical marijuana program.
He said the first step will be to get a trial judge to rule the state law is pre-empted by the Controlled Substances Act, which makes it a federal crime to possess, sell or transport marijuana.
Most immediately, he said that would allow county officials to refuse to process the local zoning permits necessary to open a dispensary.
"Once I get that ruling, what I'm going to then do is I'm going to turn around and issue guidance to law enforcement agencies within Maricopa County that medical marijuana cards are no longer a defense to the personal possession, and that we will move forward and prosecute those cases," Montgomery said.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, likewise, opined Monday that dispensaries are precluded by the Controlled Substances Act, but he said Arizona can legally issue cards entitling people to use marijuana for medical reasons without running afoul of federal law.
On the other side of the equation, a Flagstaff lawyer is threatening his own lawsuit against the state because his clients were not awarded allocations.
Lee Phillips said the process was tainted because the random selection for some areas included organizations that were not legally qualified to apply, illegally diluting the chances of his clients being selected.
Humble said his staff made every effort to ensure applicants were qualified.
Although the law is controversial, and Humble himself opposed its passage, he said Tuesday that once it was approved by voters, he went about putting together the program in the best way he could to keep it from becoming just an excuse for recreational use. And he said he has no intention of allowing the threat of litigation to bring the program to a halt unless forced to do so.
"If at some point in the future this whole program, or the dispensary part of it, ends up in a court of law, and a judge orders us to stop because of conflict, then obviously we'll stop," he said. Humble also said he would pull the plug if there were any indication his staff was in danger of being prosecuted for facilitating the ability of marijuana vendors and users to violate federal drug laws.
Tucson gets 9 slots
Among the medical marijuana dispensaries certified through a lottery system Tuesday were nine in Tucson and about a dozen elsewhere in Southern Arizona.
The winning applicants and exact locations generally are not being released.
The state Department of Health Services selected operators for dispensaries in nine of 10 "community health analysis areas" identified geographically, such as Tucson Northeast or Tucson Southwest. One area, Tucson West, had no eligible applicants.
In addition to the Tucson locations, one dispensary each was certified in Marana, Catalina, Arivaca, Benson, Willcox/Bowie, Sierra Vista, Bisbee, Douglas and Tubac/Patagonia.
In Pinal County, dispensaries were certified in Casa Grande, Maricopa, Florence and Coolidge.
Arizona Daily Star reporter David Wichner contributed to this story.