Kimberly Yee and Sheila Polk Use Power to Prop Up Marijuana Prohibition
The New Prohibitionists of Arizona
Photo illustration: Ray Stern
Arizonans who want to fight marijuana legalization in this state have two strong allies in powerful positions: State Senator Kimberly Yee and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.
Like would-be leaders of a modern-day women's temperance movement, the two Arizona politicians share a strong belief that cannabis users deserve to be jailed, and that the legalization movement sweeping the country should be literally nipped in the buds.
In the latest moves by the pair to thwart the medical-marijuana law approved by voters in 2010, Yee has single-handedly blocked a proposal to use the state's medical-marijuana fund to help study how pot may help certain ailments, and Polk has won a court battle that allows her to ban a medical user from using the drug as a condition of her probation.
Their latest efforts follow previous actions in targeting marijuana and the 2010 law, making the women among the chief pot-prohibitionists in the state.
Yee, R-Phoenix, the chair of the senate education committee, today refused to bring the study-funding proposal for a hearing -- even though it's supported by other Republicans. The bill, sponsored by State Representative Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, would have allowed the use of funds collected by the state from medical-marijuana cardholders, caregivers and dispensaries to pay for government-approved studies.
Dr. Sue Sisley, M.D., has been trying for years to launch a study on how marijuana may help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her proposal has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Obama Administration, and the Arizona House of Representatives.
Yee never returns our calls, but she reportedly told Fox 10 News, (KSAZ-TV), that the reason she didn't want the bill heard was "she feels backers of the scientific study want to legalize marijuana, as in Colorado or Washington state."
Yee claimed she couldn't get her Republican colleagues, including sponsor Orr, on the phone to discuss the matter. But when Fox 10 News reached Orr, who's on a trade mission in Mexico, he seems to have all but called Yee a liar, saying Yee won't return his calls.
Outraged cannabis supporters organized a phone-call blitz, but Yee has remained unmoved. [UPDATE JULY 10: This sentence, which originally said "Sisley and outraged cannabis supporters organized..." has been altered. Sisley, though outspoken on this issue and critical of Yee in news media interviews at the time this article was published, reports that she was "absolutely not" an organizer of the phone-call blitz, nor did she participate in "activism" or political activities on university work hours. The U of A told Sisley in July her contract would not be renewed, and she claims the university alleges she engaged in political activism on the job.]
Yee's previous anti-pot efforts include a failed bill that aimed to revoke a dispensary's operating license if it didn't properly label a marijuana product even once, and another failed bill that would have allowed police to destroy seized medical-marijuana, whether or not the seizure was legally valid.
Why Yee is such a crusader isn't clear from her background. She's an English major who later received a master's degree in public administration, a career government employee who once served as a cabinet member for former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Polk's rabid anti-marijuana stance is equally hard to figure out. As a top law enforcement figure in the state, in a decidedly right-wing county, her actions could be reasonably explained as pandering to her constituents. But Polk's hardcore opposition to marijuana seems to run deep, pushing her to pump out Soviet-style disinformation on the subject at times. She's also a co-chair for MATFORCE, an anti-drug organization that has taken a political stance against legalizing marijuana.
Earlier this month, Polk led the Yavapai Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution supporting marijuana prohibition. When New Times asked Board chairman Rowle Simmons why prohibition was better than legalization, he said he didn't know -- and that Polk had asked him to vote for the resolution, so he did.
In an Arizona Court of Appeals ruling last month, Polk was allowed to ban a medical-marijuana user from using marijuana as a term of probation.
But the court stymied Polk's plan to extend the ban on every person taking a plea deal in Yavapai County.
The case stemmed from a DUI bust in which a woman who had a .237 BAC was also found to have marijuana in her system. Polk's plea deal for the woman ordered her to "not buy, grow, possess, consume or use marijuana in any form, whether or not Defendant has a medical-marijuana card..." as a term of her probation.
When a trial-court judge struck the provision from the plea deal, citing the state's Medical Marijuana Act, Polk told him she would divert all change-of-plea cases to a different judge from then on, and would try to find judges "more agreeable to the probation term."
In an October 2013 memo Polk circulated after the trial judge's decision, Polk explained her reasoning for banning marijuana use by anyone taking a plea deal was that "marijuana continues to be banned by federal law and is ... a harmful addictive substance."
Polk further explained in the memo that she had instructed her prosecutors "to include the standard marijuana provision in every plea agreement."
For various reasons, Judges Jon Thompson and Lawrence Winthrop wrote in the 2-1 opinion that the trial court had erred by refusing to let Polk ban the DUI defendant from using marijuana as a condition of her probation, and that the lower court judge should have applied an "individualized analysis." (The third appellate judge, Margaret Downie, dissented on technical grounds.)
The appeals court supported Polk's "use of this condition" for the woman, noting that she had behaved "recklessly and engaged in disruptive behavior" while on booze and pot.
Yet the judges drew the line there, saying they "disapproved" of Polk's attempt to create a "blanket provision," which they felt would "not satisfy the prosecutor's duty to make an individualized determination of what is reasonably beneficial to the public good."
We don't know whether Polk has continued to use a blanket provision against those taking a plea regardless of the ruling, which stops short of ordering her not to do so. Polk was out of the office when we tried to reach her today.
No doubt, Polk and Yee, as two of the state's foremost anti-marijuana voices, will keep up their fight -- even if they appear to be on the losing end of history.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.
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