Arizona’s Pot Prohibitionists Haven’t Gone Away

The war is over: Arizona voters legalized recreational marijuana at the ballot box last year by a 60-to-40 margin, ten years after medical marijuana was made legal in the state. Since January, when recreational sales began, it’s been rare to drive past a Phoenix dispensary that didn’t have a line out the door. Marijuana is pumping cash into the economy and tax revenue into the state’s coffers.

But the fight for rights is never truly won. And for many of the state’s most ardent pot prohibitionists, the battles continue.

A handful of marijuana-related bills were put forth in Arizona’s most recent legislative session, including an effort to limit dispensaries from advertising and publicly sponsoring community events and a push to incorporate THC blood-level limits into DUI assessments. The year before, House Speaker Rusty Bowers introduced HCR 2045, which would have asked voters to set a two percent cap on THC in medical marijuana. (Marijuana found in a modern cannabis dispensary generally has 20 to 25 percent THC content, while concentrates have levels that are much higher.)

In more rural parts of the state, some communities have been struggling to make sense of Proposition 207 and are reluctant to open up to the economic benefits of this billion-dollar industry.

That dynamic has been on full display lately in Graham County, where a zoning battle between the board of supervisors and a Valley-based prohibitionist group could hamper legal cannabis businesses in eastern Arizona.

On June 12, the Graham County Board of Supervisors approved the rezoning of 236 acres in Bonita for cannabis cultivation. The property is owned by Willcox-based company NatureSweet, which owns two greenhouses in Bonita and seeks to diversify its property there.

Two referenda have since been filed attempting to overturn that decision.

One, by a group calling itself “Respect the Will of the People,” recently submitted more than 2,200 signatures in support of overturning the zoning change, outpacing the 1,064 it needed in the days leading up to the Aug. 5 deadline. According to Graham County Elections Director Hannah Duderstadt, once the department verifies the signatures and they are found to be sufficient, the referendum will go on the November 2022 ballot. (A call to George Khalaf, who is representing “Respect the Will of the People,” which is registered at a P.O. box in Safford, was not returned.)

A different group calling itself “Protect Graham County No To Drugs” has submitted two applications to the county: one to overturn the zoning change, and another that would amend county codes and levy prohibitive taxes on cannabis businesses in the county. It has until July 2022 to get the signatures required for a November 2022 initiative.

Specifically, the “No To Drugs” group wants to impose a $1,000 occupational permit fee as well as a $1,000-per-pound tax on all cannabis and cannabis byproducts “sold or transferred” from the facility. The chairman of the organization is identified as Kenneth Daniel Krieger, a former Peoria chiropractor, who, according to a report in the Gila Herald, has a history of attempts to stop grow facilities across the state. Krieger reportedly led a group known as “Citizens for a Safer Snowflake” that sued to stop Copperstate Farms from setting up its successful grow facility in Snowflake on another former NatureSweet site. That case was dismissed.

Timothy Sifert, the treasurer of “Protect Graham County No To Drugs,” told Phoenix New Times “I’ll forward this to the committee leadership, I’m just the treasurer,” and didn’t respond to a follow-up.

Focusing on the Family

Leading up to the legalization of adult-use, recreational pot in 2020, a group calling itself Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, chaired by anti-cannabis activist Lisa James, sought to stop Prop 207, filing a challenge against Smart and Safe Arizona, the advocacy group behind Prop 207, alleging the 100-word summary on its petitions to qualify for the ballot was “fraudulent.”

The Arizona Supreme Court swatted down James’ group’s challenge. Prop 207 made it to the ballot, where Arizona voters made clear their support for legalization.

James called the results of the election “a sad day” that was caused by the “deceit and self-interest” of individuals in the cannabis industry who backed the initiative. In the wake of the election, the Facebook group that rallied around James in her attempts to stop legalization has reverted back to a group calling itself AZ Parents Concerned About Legal Recreational Pot, administered by Sally Schindel, who lost her son Andrew Steven Zorn to suicide in 2014.

According to Schindel, the 31-year-old Army veteran blamed his “addiction to marijuana” in his suicide note, stating, “marijuana killed my soul & ruined my brain.” Schindel said that Zorn had many mental health problems, was hospitalized and underwent “state-ordered care,” but she blames it mainly on his marijuana use.

Schindel said she volunteers for eight different organizations working to educate people about the risks and harms of cannabis and is focused on narratives outlining the dangers of the drug.

One of the organizations Schindel is connected to is MATFORCE, a Yavapai County group focused on addressing opioid and other drug addictions. It has more than 300 volunteers, as reported on the website MATFORCE itself is connected to several programs devoted to drug prevention and education in schools, including “the Yavapai Reentry Project, Trauma Lens Care, public awareness and education campaigns, and advocating for policy change at the state and local level.”

“I fully understand that some people find medical benefits from it and I know that people find recreational benefits from it,” she told New Times. “But I’m all too familiar myself with the risks and the harms in this.”

“I don’t read very much science about the benefits of marijuana,” she added. “I believe that they are out there, but I don’t need to know that much. I think it’s such a dangerous drug that we should not be commercializing it and promoting it the way we do.”

Like many other prohibitionists, Schindel believes the high THC levels found in commercial marijuana are “leading to deaths.” She admits that she used cannabis recreationally when she was in college in the 1960s and ’70s, but now with increased potency and increasing legalization, she says people are using more potent pot more often, creating millions of new users in a lethal environment.

This line of thinking — that the commercial-grade marijuana sold at modern dispensaries is so powerful as to be dangerous, and that therefore THC limits are necessary — is likely the next battle in the war.

Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette told New Times that these arguments have been made throughout the long history of marijuana’s demonization and that any attempts to put limits on potency go directly against the will of the Arizona electorate.

“Voters in Arizona not only chose to legalize the flower of the plant but they also voted to permit the sale and consumption of products extracted from the plant,” he said. “We find it repugnant that there are those who now seek to silence the voice of the majority of Arizona voters by promoting the concept of THC caps. Medical patients rely on higher potency THC for relief from myriad health conditions and adults should always have the freedom of choice to consume higher potency THC products. Therefore, we are in strict opposition to the imposition of THC caps into a controlled, medicinal or adult-use market.”

Schindel said she understands that legal cannabis is not going away and that she is against incarcerating people for possession of small amounts, but she holds close the idea that the harms of cannabis far outweigh the benefits. Hence the fact that she is devoting her life to getting her message out to the public.

“We have the focus of educating and regulating, not getting rid of marijuana, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen. I don’t know anybody who thinks that could happen.”