Arizona: House Panel Says Cops Can Destroy Marijuana, Even If Patients Had Right To Possess It

Photo by Howard Fischer, Capitol Media ServicesBy Steve Elliott
Hemp News

An Arizona House panel voted on Tuesday to let police destroy marijuana they have seized, even if it was seized from legal medical marijuana patients who had a right to possess it.

The panel ignored the pleas of Arizona's former top federal prosecutor, who told members of the Judiciary Committee that SB 1441 -- supposedly meant to "tighten up" the state's medical marijuana law -- is an improer end-run around the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, approved by voters in 2010, reports Howard Fischer at Capitol Media Services.

McDonald said he is more than an idle bystander to the medical marijuana debate. He told lawmakers of the seizures endured by his stepson, Bennett Black, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 1997 accident and had to have part of his brain removed. McDonald said both the seizures and the pills which were supposed to control them made Bennett sick and nauseous.

It was only when McDonald's wife, Cindy, began to get marijuana for their son -- illegally, until the state's medical marijuana law was passed -- that he actually was able to eat and reverse the weight loss which had seen him shrink from 180 pounds to just 118.

Republican committee members, though, blithely ignored McDonald's powerful testimony on a 5-3 party-line vote. Two of the GOP legislators who supported SB 1441, despite McDonald's testimony, claimed they did so to give the full House a chance to weigh in, even while claiming they were "concerned" with any measures which could undermine the 2010 voter-approved law.

Rep. Ethan Orr (R-Tucson) said he fears that the legislation could be used to shut down dispensaries by seizing all the marijuana, leaving patients without their medicinal cannabis while owners sought out a new supply. He voted for it anyway.

"I have come to realize through personal family situations that yes, there is an applicable use of medical marijuana," said Rep. Doris Goodale (R-Kingman). She said she doesn't want to undermine the will of the voters who approved the state's medical marijuana program -- but she, too, followed the GOP party line, voting for it anyway.

The measure has already been pushed through the state Senate by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council. Because it was adopted by voters, it can only be amended with a three-fourths vote of each chamber. That means 45 of 60 House members would have to go along with the bill.

But Anjali Abraham with the American Civil Liberties Union said even if SB 1441 supporters managed to get 45 votes, it still may not be over.

Abraham pointed out that the Arizona Constitution allows legislators to change voter-approved measures only to "further the purpose" of the original law. Allowing the cops to keep marijuana illegally seized from patients does not do that, she said.

The legislation is designed to overturn a state Court of Appeals ruling from last year. In that case, Valerie Okun, a California medical marijuana patient, was stopped by Border Patrol agents just inside Arizona. They took her marijuana and referred the case to the Yuma County Attorney's Office for prosecution.

The case was dropped after Okun produced her California medical marijuana card. Arizona's medical marijuana law recognizes authorizations from other states.

But when Okun demanded that her marijuana be returned, the Yuma County Sheriff's Office wouldn't do it. They claimed deputies would be "violating federal law which continue to regard cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance.

The appellate judges disagreed, ruling there is no danger of federal prosecution, at least in part because the deputies would have been obeying a lawful court order.

That case is now on appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, but Kim McEachern, lobbyist for the state prosecutors' association, said lawmakers should make clear that marijuana -- once seized by the cops -- cannot be returned, even if it was wrongly seized to begin with.

Former U.S. Attorney McDonald told the lawmakers that supposed concerns about federal prosecution are "utter nonsense."

"The Department of Justice has more issues on their plate than to worry about a deputy sheriff turning back to a lady marijuana that should never have been seized in the first place," McDonald said.

"It is nothing more than prosecutors trying to yet create another exception to allow them to do what the voters of the state of Arizona said you can't do," McDonald said.

(Photo of former U.S. Attorney Melvin McDonald by Howard Fisher/Capitol Media Services)