PHOENIX - Arizona officials used a bingo machine with sets of numbered air-blown balls Tuesday as they picked winners from among hundreds of applicants for certificates to run medical marijuana dispensaries around the state.
The 4-hour drawing to pick winners among 404 applicants for 68 dispensary districts constituted a key implementation step for the voter-created health program whose legality is still in question because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. An additional 29 districts only had one applicant each so no drawing was held for those.
Health Services Director Will Humble said applicants allocated dispensary certificates now must file more paperwork and then pass various inspections within the next year before getting licenses to operate.
He said some dispensaries could open their doors within a few weeks if their operators' preparations are well under way but that it may take others until next spring.
Humble said he was unaware of any other state's medical marijuana program using a bingo system. He said his staff identified the bingo system after he said he wanted a selection method providing transparency while making random selections among qualified applicants for each certificate.
``We plagiarized a lot from other states, but we didn't plagiarize this,'' Humble said.
His department streamed video of the drawing on the Internet, and Humble said it would be posted on YouTube.
The drawing was held one day after state Attorney General Tom Horne issued a non-binding opinion saying the state legally cannot authorize distribution of marijuana because federal law trumps the 2010 voter-approved law creating the program. However, he said the drawings could proceed because it's not the final step in the implementation process.
Gov. Jan Brewer's administration initially resisted having to launch the dispensary system but since has proceeded with implementation after losing several court fights. In one case, a federal judge refused to rule on the federal pre-emption issue when raised by Brewer and Horne.
Nearly 30,000 people already have Arizona permits to use medical marijuana, but they've had to grow pot or get it from other permitted individuals until dispensaries begin operating. They'll lose that authorization once a dispensary opens within 25 miles of where they live.
The Arizona medical marijuana law, put on the ballot by initiative and narrowly approved by voters, prohibits the department from identifying dispensary applicants, but there's no prohibition on advertising or other self-identification by applicants or operators.
There originally were 486 dispensary applicants, but the number was reduced to 432 because some applicants or their applications were deemed ineligible or incomplete.
The law established 126 dispensary districts, but there were no applicants for 27 of those. Of the remaining 99, two were not included in the allocation process because of pending court cases.
Most of the competition for certificates was concentrated in the Phoenix and Tucson areas but also smaller cities such as Flagstaff, Coolidge urban areas and Coolidge in Pinal County. A district that includes Verde Valley communities in northeast Yavapai County had the most applicants with 14.
Blank spots on the dispensary map will include Indian reservations, where no applications were filed, but Humble said 98 percent of the state's population would live within 25 miles of a dispensary.
Horne on Monday expressed confidence that a judge will block the dispensary process because of federal pre-emption as part of a pending court case involving one dispensary district in Maricopa County, but an attorney for dispensary operators said Horne's confidence is misplaced.
``Right now it's the law of the land,'' attorney Ryan Hurley said Tuesday.