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A day late, dollar short on new marijuana law

Arizona’s medical marijuana law continues to pay out. The payoff isn’t so great for sickened would-be patients and convalescing recreational users, as it is for journalists and attorneys.

Last week, Gov. Jan Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne announced they would ask a federal judge to rule whether Arizona’s voter-approved medical marijuana law is incompatible with federal drug laws. That question could be answered fairly easily by a classroom of seventh-grade civics students, but there is still more fun to be had in discerning the motive of the lawsuit.

Brewer and Horne contend it was filed to make sure state employees aren’t subject to prosecution by Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke. A former chief of staff to Gov. Janet Napolitano, Burke was appointed to his post by the Obama administration, which to date has generally treated public employees as the highest life form in the universe.

In plainer English, the risk of state employees facing federal prosecution for undertaking administrative tasks demanded by the new state pot law is roughly one in 64 trillion. What is far more likely, critics of the decision contend, is that Brewer and Horne are seeking political cover (in the form of a court ruling that acknowledges the obvious lesson that federal laws trump state laws) to simply not allow medical marijuana in Arizona.

The first steps toward halting the program took place June 1, when Department of Health Services Director Will Humble officially declined to accept the first application for a license to open a marijuana dispensary. That necessitated a press conference, and a good one at that. The hopeful would-be marijuana dispensary operators, usually type-cast as rumpled and dreadlocked ne’er-do-wells, were actually several real-life respectable physicians who want to give marijuana to people who are really, really sick.

Their high-powered attorney, perhaps miraculously, also managed to bemoan that the will of the voters had been thwarted — without criticizing Humble, who the public is being asked to believe is the primary decision-maker behind Arizona’s refusal to carry out state law.

“I am not a lawyer,” became Humble’s refrain when he was asked repeatedly to cite what authority he had to simply ignore a law passed by voters. Although talkative, quick-witted and funny, Humble was stymied when asked whether he or the governor made the final call to simply not carry out the state law passed by voters.

“I would have to say that it was ultimately my call,” Humble said after pausing for what seemed like an eternity — even though his boss, Brewer, reluctantly told reporters last week that she would likely take steps to see that dispensary applications not be accepted.

Brewer and Horne, meanwhile, have ginned up political support by antagonizing the federal government over dismal border security and its SB1070 lawsuit, arguing federal law doesn’t stop states from immigration enforcement. Admitting that they want (and need) federal help to stop a medical marijuana law they don’t agree with would look too silly at this point.

And so would admitting that they — and the state’s business community — completely blew it when it came to opposing the medical marijuana proposal when it mattered: before the November election.

Brewer and Horne were next to silent on the issue, other than lending their name to a list of opponents kept by the Keep AZ Drug Free ballot committee. Had a shoo-in-for-re-election governor taken a greater interest, it’s possible the campaign could have resembled that of Proposition 100, which sailed to victory with Brewer as its head cheerleader. Her allies in the business community raised $2.4 million to help convince the public to tax themselves.

The anti-medical marijuana ballot committee raised only a paltry $25,000. And although facing an initiative campaign flush with cash and the built-in and righteous pity afforded to people suffering from cancer, hepatitis and sclerosis, Prop. 203 opponents lost by three-thousandths of 1 percent, or 4,340 of 1,678,356 votes cast on the proposal.

Reporting on the Prop. 203 campaign and the related goings-on since then has been a blast. And it’s safe to say that the lawyers are also having a good time. The Rose Law Group, which will likely sue Arizona on behalf of the three Scottsdale physicians, is also playing a direct role in the Brewer/Horne lawsuit. Several of its clients — at the invite of the attorney general — have agreed to be named defendants along with the federal government.

That notion, said attorney Richard Keyt, who has helped incorporate more than 70 aspiring medical marijuana businesses, is very unusual. “I’ve never heard of such a thing — let me know if you want me to sue you,” he said of Horne’s invite. One local veteran reporter summed it up another way: Billable hours.

— Christian Palmer is the associate editor of the Yellow Sheet Report.

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