Anti-Marijuana Crusaders to Talk "Science" of Cannabis in Phoenix

A group of scientists and activists is coming to Phoenix later this month to talk about the "science" of marijuana in what appears to be another publicly funded prohibitionist political event.

The all-day affair, "Marijuana: The Science and the Experiment," promises to share "true scientific facts" about the supposed harms of marijuana, including addiction and its effects on the brain. It's taking place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, September 22, at the Black Canyon Conference Center, 9440 North 25th Avenue. Registration is online; the cost is $50 for all day or $25 for a half-day. The facility has multiple meetings rooms and a ballroom capable of seating 400 people.

Hosted by the "Marijuana Harmless? Think Again!" campaign, an offshoot of the Yavapai County substance abuse program MATFORCE led by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, the event is expected to bring in business and healthcare professionals, substance abuse specialists, law enforcement types, and "interested community members."

Don't expect a neutral presentation, though: The target is not necessarily truth, but achieving the political — and non-scientific — goal of thwarting legalization. The organizers and most of the speakers are staunch prohibitionists. They're concerned about potential ballot measures expected to be put before Arizona voters next year that would legalize cannabis for people 21 and older and set up a system of regulated cannabis stores.

Here's the lineup of speakers so far:

* Christian Thurstone, M.D. — The medical director for Denver's Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment Education & Prevention Program. Thurstone published a video talking about his top 10 reasons marijuana should remain illegal and once suggested that Michael Brown's use of marijuana had something to do with his getting shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.

* Madeline Meier — An Arizona State University assistant professor who led a now-famous study that showed long-term marijuana users suffered a drop in IQ over their lifetimes and that the effect was pronounced if cannabis use began early in life. She's the one person on this list whose feelings about legalization are unknown. She tells New Times she's not an activist, is not "taking sides" by speaking at the MATFORCE event, and has no official opinion on legalization. "I'm going to present my data and let people interpret it how they will," she says.

* Christine Miller — a Colorado psychiatrist who has written and spoken against legalization. In a 2012 column, Miller suggested that marijuana is something new to Western Civilization and "exposure" to it can still be prevented, whereas "alcohol has been an integral part of western European culture for thousands of years, and no secular law could possibly be expected to temper a pervasive habit in so short a time."  She also made the incredible claim in the same column that in the Netherlands, "over 80 percent of those who enter psychiatric clinics there with a psychotic disorder are reported to have a marijuana-induced psychosis."

* Sergeant Jim Gerhardt of Colorado's Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area — A police officer who speaks frequently, and negatively, about Colorado's 2012 adult-use legalization law. Last year, he told a newspaper that "daily we’re seeing incidents where people are driving under the influence of marijuana getting into serious accidents, even causing fatalities." In fact, Colorado has released no data for Gerhardt or anyone else that details the toxicology reports of Colorado drivers believed to have caused serious or fatal accidents. New Times research in 2013 showed that marijuana, which is in wide use in Arizona illegally and also legally for medicinal use, was an insignificant factor in serious and fatal crashes when used by itself. 

* Jo McGuire, member of the anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana — A Colorado mother of three, McGuire is on a Colorado task force that examines the benefits and drawbacks to legalization. She's made a career of speaking against marijuana, in addition to her career working for a drug-testing company. A critic of "Big Marijuana" and cannabis-industry representatives, McGuire started an anti-legalization blog, travels to other states to talk about the downside of decriminalization and is sought out by the media for anti-marijuana soundbites.

* Christine Tatum — A public relations expert and co-author of the book Clearing the Haze: Helping Families Face Teen Addiction,” she's also the wife of Dr. Christian Thurstone. New Times' sister paper in Colorado, Denver Westword, deemed Tatum an "anti-pot jihadist" in a 2013 article that examined how she links marijuana use to the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater mass shooting, the Columbine school massacre, and the mass shootings in Tucson in which nine people were killed and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was injured permanently with a shot to the head.

Of course, MATFORCE's Reefer Madness message wouldn't get so much attention if MATFORCE wasn't tapping the public treasury to pay for its efforts.

As New Times reported in May, Polk helped steer $50,000 in money forfeited from crime suspects to MATFORCE, which used it in part to lobby against marijuana legalization. Polk told New Times that some of the RICO funds were used to bring nationally recognized marijuana prohibitionist Kevin Sabet to Arizona last November for an event.

Last year, Polk and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, also a legalization foe, asked state Attorney General Mark Brnovich for an official opinion on whether public funds and resources could be used to criticize marijuana legalization as part of a general anti-substance-abuse message. Brnovich agreed the money could be used this way — until a public uproar caused him to reverse the decision.

No more RICO funds or other direct public funding should be used for MATFORCE's anti-legalization campaign, but the public still is footing the bill. Considered a nonprofit organization by the IRS, MATFORCE has a budget of about $400,000, online records show. Its primary funding source seems to be the Northern Arizona Regional Behavior Authority, which in turn receives most of its funding from taxpayers via the Arizona Department of Public Health. MATFORCE claims its budget actually is about $800,000. MATFORCE has so far refused to release details of its funding and budget to New Times.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.