Potential Marijuana Legalization in Arizona Threatens TASC Drug Treatment Firm's Funding

A Maricopa County nonprofit that makes much of its money off low-level marijuana offenders would take a big financial hit if Arizona voters legalize marijuana in November.

The Treatment Assessment Screening Center, better known as TASC, contracts with the county to provide six months of mandatory drug-treatment services for first- or second-time offenders who get busted for possession of illegal drugs. TASC participants, with exceptions for low-income offenders, pay their own way for the program

If Arizonans vote "yes" on the Colorado-style legalization measure expected to be on the ballot next year, it would have huge effect on TASC, the nonprofit's CEO, Doug Kramer, acknowledges. TASC would need to seek out other court-ordered funding sources "to counter the loss of operating revenue," Kramer says.

TASC is "akin to a for-profit prison." — Tom Dean, a metro Phoenix lawyer who specializes in cannabis cases.

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The financial loss also could jeopardize a new TASC initiative that provides grants to local nonprofit groups working to fight substance abuse, he says.

While legalization might make it harder for TASC to stay in business, cannabis consumers won't miss the program.

As New Times reported earlier this month, experts believe that just 12 percent to 16 percent of people who smoke marijuana regularly meet the American Psychiatric Association's criteria for dependency. That is, the vast majority of marijuana users aren't addicted and don't need treatment for their use of their plant, yet they're still treated like hard drug abusers under the law. 

"TASC is government-run, taxpayer-funded legal extortion," Yelp user A.W. of Granada Hills, California, wrote online in 2014. "I live in Cali (and) had a bong confiscated in AZ... now I have to jump through hoops to avoid a class-6 felony on my record." The user concluded his review with angry-sounding f-bombs.

In Arizona, which has one of the strictest possession laws in the country, getting caught with the tiniest amount of weed — and no valid medical-marijuana card — usually results in a trip to jail and an initial felony charge. In Maricopa County, prosecutors typically offer to drop the felony charge in exchange for submitting to the TASC adult-diversion program. Cannabis offenders are then required to attend an anti-drug class and submit to urine tests for six months. Testing positive for marijuana or other substances during the program means extra fees for the defendant; people who repeatedly fail drugs are kicked out of the program and usually prosecuted for a misdemeanor.

Although Arizona passed a drug-reform law in 1996 that prohibits a sentence of jail or prison for first- or second-time drug offenders, TASC has been around since 1977. The county contracted with TASC in 1989, offering a program for marijuana offenders that's similar to the one still offered today.

In the county's fiscal year 2015, which ended in July, 2,591 people successfully completed TASC and 1,996 — or about 77 percent —  were marijuana offenders.

The County Attorney's Office could not provide statistics that detail how many TASC referrals involved possession of fewer than six plants for cultivation, or less than an ounce of marijuana, both of which would be legal under the proposed ballot measure. But it's safe to say that of the 77 percent of marijuana cases TASC handled in fiscal year 2015, most would disappear.

TASC declined to state the general cost to a marijuana offender for the program, but Tom Dean, a local attorney who works with marijuana defendants, says — including urinanalysis — it  runs about $1,300 per person. 

Dean notes that the program is a monopoly with captured clientele.

TASC is "akin to a for-profit prison in that regard," he says.

While TASC soaks marijuana offenders because of the state's draconian cannabis laws, online tax records show that TASC executives use that money to reward themselves with lavish salaries. As New Times reports today, former TASC CEO Barbara Zugor, one of the founders, has been making $360,000 to $476,000 annually for the last several years, records show.

Jerry Cobb, spokesman for County Attorney Bill Montgomery, took offense to a recent New Times article that states how the County Attorney's Office "forced" a cannabis consumer to quit cold turkey for six months.

"To say that she was forced is wrong," Cobb fumed. "It's a cheap attention-getter."

The woman, a 23-year-old waitress, "was not forced to have a felony dismissed from her record," he says. "A defendant can choose not to participate in drug treatment."

Although the article makes it clear that the woman was given the choice that Cobb mentions, it's really not much of a choice. By initially charging a marijuana offense as a felony, Montgomery's office leverages TASC participation against, on conviction, getting stripped of the right to vote and getting banned from owning firearms.

Also the implied threat is that once convicted of such a crime, there is a lifetime of lost earning potential.  

Lawyer Mel McDonald, former Arizona U.S. Attorney and a supporter of legal medical marijuana, says he appreciates being able to offer his clients the TASC option.

"[Marijuana] is still against the law and [Montgomery] has the right to prosecute," McDonald says. "He's been extremely fair in giving people charged with marijuana an 'out.'" 

Yet it's also true that Montgomery could use his discretion as a prosecutor to further ease the punishment of marijuana offenders, as prosecutors have done in other Arizona counties.

Montgomery's not required by any statute to make marijuana users go to TASC as part of the deferred-prosecution deals he approves. The 1996 reform law, Proposition 200, requires that people convicted of drug possession go through a drug-treatment program. But under a deferred prosecution, there is no conviction.

As Dean points out, Navajo County requires cannabis offenders to pay $750, perform community service, and sign up for an online workbook about drugs — no drug testing at all is required. Coconino County goes one better, Dean says, charging offenders $400.

Montgomery, he says, runs the strictest anti-marijuana prosecution in the state by using an initial felony charge while most prosecutors charge low-level pot offenders with a misdemeanor.

This shouldn't be surprising, since Montgomery is one of the most vocal anti-cannabis activists in the state.

Another pot-prohibitionist, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk,seems to have turned a personal bias against marijuana into official agency policy. Polk doesn't offer deferred prosecutions but allows marijuana offenders to accept a misdemeanor conviction in return for staying clean during 18 months of urine testing.

Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon tells New Times that he chooses not to require drug testing for marijuana offenders because it would take too long for people to drive to testing services in the rural county —  and because "people don't have money here."

TASC signed a contract in 2009 with the county to provide services until February 2016. The county hasn't yet asked TASC to bid for another contract, and TASC hasn't requested a new contract, says Fields Moseley, a county spokesman.

It's unclear whether TASC will continue to offer the program. But Moseley says TASC doesn't need to ink a contract with the county to keep doing what it does, since TASC participants pay for their participation.
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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.