Arizona's Medical-Marijuana Opponents Hit With Symbolic Setback as Sun City Shop Opens

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and other Arizona foes of medical marijuana were hit by another symbolic setback with last weekend's opening of a Sun City dispensary.

The White Mountain Health Center, a nonprofit company operated by marijuana activist and bong-tool inventor Daryl "Butch" Williams, is the now the 84th dispensary in the state that provides cannabis products to qualified patients under a 2010 voter-approved law.

Montgomery, the Valley's elected top prosecutor and a former Army tank-unit commander, thought that Sun City would be the battleground where he'd stomp out the will of the voters.

He thought wrong.

See also: -Arizona Could Earn $48M Yearly by Taxing Legal Marijuana, Legislative Analysis Shows -Banking on Pot: Arizona's Banks and Medical-Marijuana Dispensaries Seek an Unprosecutable Relationship

A Republican, social conservative and strong opponent of legalization, Montgomery advised the Board of Supervisors in 2011 to "opt out" of the medical-marijuana program, claiming it violated federal law. All five members, including former Democratic Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, took his bad advice.

Butch Williams won the opportunity to open a dispensary in Sun City -- and nowhere else -- in a state Department of Health Services lottery. He was forced to sue the county or lose his initial investment.

In defending the county's attempt to block White Mountain from setting up shop, Montgomery and state Attorney General Tom Horne were also defending their interests against that of state voters'.

Montgomery told New Times at the time that he hoped the White Mountain case was the "dam" that blocked up implementation of the 2010 law. But in December of 2012, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Gordon ruled that Arizona's law didn't conflict with federal law, after all. Montgomery's politically driven chess game had led to what the judge called a "transparent attempt" by the county to stymie the law.

Gordon's ruling led to the opening of dispensaries across the state, which now has about 53,000 certified patients. Montgomery's appeal is in a holding pattern. The lawsuit is one of several civil actions across the nation that could, in theory, lead to a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling about the states' right to defy federal cannabis-prohibition laws.

At the moment, the long-awaited opening of White Mountain on Sunday looks like more evidence that Montgomery's wasting his time -- along with taxpayers' money. He's on the proverbial wrong side of history.

Not only is medical marijuana being sold legally where Montgomery wanted it to remain a felony, but the nonprofit firms' medical director is none other than Sue Sisley, the conservative M.D. whose planned study on veterans with PTSD was booted out of the state by thick-headed prohibitionists, only to receive a $2 million grant this month by the state of Colorado.

Folks like Montgomery, Horne, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, Matforce director Merilee Fowler would like to see sick people go without their medicine, marijuana users jailed, dispensaries shut down, growers and sellers thrown in prison, and scientific research quashed.

The new dispensary in Sun City shows how, at least for now, their efforts are failing.

Williams isn't quite basking in the warmth of victory. The opening follows several years of Williams and his partners pouring hard work and money into the business, with the added challenge of a lengthy courtroom struggle. While the White Mountain case paved the way for all other Arizona dispensaries, it's one of the last to open. The first couple of days of operation have been a learning experience.

The business was popular before it opened, he says. Several people a day would stop by to check it out in the final weeks of construction, asking questions. On Sunday, the first official day of business, White Mountain conducted four transactions. When they turned on their "open" sign on Monday, the dispensary conducted about 15 transactions before shutting down. Inventory and packaging are a challenge, Williams says. The shop's cultivation site wasn't approved in time, meaning for now the dispensary's product comes from other Arizona dispensaries.

"We're very, very selective," about the cannabis products they're acquiring for their customers, he says.

Williams expects the problems to be smoothed out soon, with an official grand opening possible in early January. The business, located at 9420 West Bell Road, will be open normally each day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he says.

Williams is well-entrenched in the medical-marijuana industry. A few years ago, he invented a pipe- and bong-cleaning tool that's sold in head shops. He's an activist with a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and a board member of Charlotte's Club, an Arizona group that helps connect needy patients with low-cost or free medicine. And he's provided help to the family of Zander Welton, a boy with epilepsy who -- according to the family's Facebook site -- has kept his seizures under control by using a cannabis tincture rich in a compound that contains little or no THC. The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Arizona sued Maricopa County on behalf of the Weltons after threats by Montgomery to prosecute state-authorized patients for using concentrated marijuana products, which are deemed "narcotics" under the state's archaic drug laws. The Weltons prevailed in a ruling that cleared the way for tinctures, hashish, "shatter" and other concentrates to be sold by dispensaries and used by patients. Williams says that Jacob Welton, the boy's father, is his personal friend and, now, an employee of the dispensary.

The dispensary operator wants to downplay the "battle" angle between his company and the powerful elected prosecutor.

"My hope is to have a meeting of the minds," he says.

Not likely. Montgomery's still pursuing the case against the dispensary, and the 2010 law itself. It may take years to wrap up, but you never know. Records show the case is stalled in expectation of a review by the Arizona Supreme Court of an appeals-court ruling in July that found people on probation could not, in many circumstances, be denied a medical-marijuana card.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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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.