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GOP legislators to law enforcement on medical marijuana: Focus on the illegal clubs

medical marijuanaThe marijuana dispensary industry has new and unlikely allies in a dozen Republican lawmakers, some of whom only months ago supported bills seen as hostile to the industry.

The lawmakers’ message to law enforcement officials: Focus on illegal “clubs,’’ but let legal dispensaries operate within the law and without obstruction.

That’s a significant change for several of the legislators, who recently had sponsored legislation to tighten the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 2010.

And it echoes the message coming from the state’s fledgling medical marijuana dispensary industry, which has been telling law enforcement to leave them alone and concentrate on the clubs operating outside of the law.

In a letter sent last week to Attorney General Tom Horne, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the dozen GOP lawmakers asked the state’s three top law enforcement officials to focus their efforts on finding, busting and prosecuting those running clubs where marijuana is shared or sold, often contrary to the state’s medical marijuana rules.

Horne was largely responsible for a year-long restraining order that barred the Arizona Department of Health and Human Services from processing dispensary applications as a federal lawsuit worked through the courts. He wanted a federal court to declare Arizona’s medical marijuana program unconstitutional because it violated federal drug laws, but he ultimately didn’t prevail.

Some of the illegal clubs began sprouting up while the dispensary licensing process was delayed by Horne’s lawsuit. The illegal clubs typically allow people, sometimes with and sometimes without a proper state medical marijuana certification, to share, buy or sell marijuana outside the state’s rigorous tracking system.

Montgomery is still engaged in a nearly identical legal battle, but in state court. Like Horne, Montgomery has argued that Maricopa County cannot process zoning permits for the dispensaries, because doing so would violate federal drug laws. Montgomery has so far lost this legal fight in Maricopa County Superior Court and is awaiting a state appeals court hearing. In the meantime, the county’s zoning office has been ordered by the courts to process dispensaries’ zoning requests.

The letter contrasts the illegal marijuana clubs with the licensed dispensaries that have increasingly opened their doors to legitimate medical marijuana patients.

“While the licensed dispensaries are operating within Arizona law and are doing their best to fully comply with both the spirit and letter of our laws, these clubs do not,” the letter reads.

Republican Sens. Judy Burges and Chester Crandell, Reps. Jeff Dial, David Livingston, Kelly Townsend, Steve Montenegro, Darin Mitchell, Bob Thorpe, Ethan Orr, Steve Smith, David Stevens, Justin Olson and Livingston’s wife, a Peoria school board member, all signed the letter.

Half of the lawmakers who signed the letter supported failed bills this past legislative session that dispensary industry advocates said would have hurt their business and encouraged black-market marijuana sales.

Burges, Crandell, Livingston, Mitchell and Townsend all voted for SB1440, which would have required dispensaries to sell marijuana in opaque packaging. Dispensary industry advocates said that would make their business more difficult and encourage more illegal marijuana “club” activity, where such regulations would likely be disregarded.

Burges, Crandell and Orr also voted in support of SB1441, which would have required law enforcement agencies to destroy any medical marijuana seized during a criminal investigation, even if no charges follow from the investigation. Dispensary industry advocates argued the change would have violated the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizure protections, and that it could lead to immense financial losses, even if an investigation turns up only lawful activity.

Advocates for the full implementation of the licensed marijuana dispensary portion of the law said these efforts represented a desire to squeeze the industry out of business with onerous regulations, based only on an ideological opposition to marijuana as medicine.

Supporters of the bills said they were simply intended to clean up the laws where problems might arise. Supporters said opaque packaging, for instance, would help keep marijuana away from non-patients and children. And requiring police to destroy seized medical marijuana would avoid requiring them to potentially maintain live, seized marijuana plants. The bill would avoid putting police in a position of having to break federal drug laws by, themselves, cultivating marijuana in case it ultimately needs to be returned.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said her signature on the letter does not mean she endorses medical marijuana, but that she wants law enforcement to focus on going after bad actors in the system, not those abiding by the state’s medical marijuana laws.

“What I signed said we want to shut down the illegal dispensaries and enforce the law… That does not mean I give my endorsement to legal dispensaries,” she said. “I don’t like any of it, but it’s the law.”

Townsend said that if Horne and Montgomery continue pursuing their legal arguments that the state law is unconstitutional, that’s their prerogative, but she wants to see the laws on the books enforced.

Maricopa County Bill Montgomery said he has already prosecuted charges against illegal clubs that have been passed to him by local police, and he intends to continue doing so.

“If you’re not operating within the narrow confines of the (Arizona Medical Marijuana Act), you will be prosecuted,” Montgomery assured.

But he said he also still wholeheartedly believes the system is in direct conflict with federal laws and that the issue needs to be sufficiently addressed either in courts or with federal changes to drug laws.

Letter to Arizona law enforcement

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