Prohibitionists Like Arizona County Attorneys Sheila Polk and Bill Montgomery Insist That Pot Is Hurting People. All They Lack Is Real Evidence

Cannabis candies on display at PARC Dispensary in Tempe.
Cannabis candies on display at PARC Dispensary in Tempe.
Courtney Pedroza

The nation has seen six years of legal medical or recreational marijuana use in 23 states and Washington, D.C., not to mention decades of widespread illegal use, but experts still have no real idea whether the drug poses any significant danger.

What is certain is that marijuana is the second most popular spirituous substance behind liquor in the United States.

Since the Obama era began, more people have smoked, vaped, eaten, and drunk marijuana than ever, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Based on a 2011 survey, an estimated 18.1 million people over age 12 reported consuming marijuana in the past month, and about 5 million consumed it almost daily — and that was four years ago.

Reports of direct harm definitively linked to marijuana, whether by overdose, the triggering of an extreme reaction, or through accidents, are minimal compared to the number of people using it. When the use of marijuana appears to have a connection to an act of violence or an accident, the news media and prohibitionist politicians trumpet the story because of the ongoing debate over legalization.

Yet when compared to incidents sparked by alcohol use, such incidents are rare.

Since adult-use marijuana laws passed in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., millions of legal marijuana edibles have been consumed. Many tons of legal marijuana have been smoked. And, of course, countless tons have been consumed in recent years in states where pot remains illegal.

Yet manslaughter cases involving drivers impaired only by marijuana remain scarce, in part because marijuana doesn't impair judgment as much as alcohol and other drugs. Cannabis overdoses are unheard of. Babies, toddlers, and adults who accidentally consume large amounts of THC — and do so in increasing numbers in Colorado and Arizona — always have recovered completely.

Those opposed to legalization, however, claim that people are dropping like flies from marijuana ingestion. For instance, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk claimed falsely in a June op-ed that the deaths of dozens of children last year "resulted from" marijuana. Prohibitionists claim cannabis is causing more traffic collisions, suicides, and accidents at work and at home.

Of all their sensational claims, though, the most disturbing is that eating a tiny amount of cannabis can turn a loving husband into a wife-killer. They make this claim based on a single murder case: the slaying of Denver mom Kristine Kirk by her husband, Richard.

The case drew worldwide attention last year because of its connection to legal cannabis. Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana for all adults 21 and older following its historic 2012 vote, and the first retail shops offering a range of marijuana products opened in January 2014.

The basic facts of the Kirk case, as laid out in court records, aren't in dispute. On April 14, 2014, Kirk, now 49, bought the piece of "Karma Kandy Orange Ginger" with infused cannabis at one of the new marijuana stores in Denver. Three hours later, about 9:30 p.m., his wife told a 911 dispatcher that Richard appeared to be "hallucinating" and was "talking about the end of the world."

Kristine Kirk, 44, related that her husband was acting "drunk, not violent" and was scaring their three young children. He asked her to get the household handgun and shoot him. When she refused, he entered the combination on a safe, pulled out the gun, put it to her temple and pulled the trigger. As she lay in a pool of blood, Kirk then told his 7-year-old son to kill him so "Dad and Mom could be together with God."

He was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder. When police put the "rambling" suspect in a squad car, Kirk allegedly said he "was the strongest man in the Church of Latter-day Saints" and that he had killed his wife. He hasn't made any statements since.

In a September court motion, Kirk's lawyer changed his plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity. Kirk's defense is, officially, that legal cannabis made him kill.

The murder suspect hopes a jury buys his story.

Pot prohibitionists hope the public buys it, too – because when it comes to demonstrating the supposed harm of marijuana, the controversial murder of Kristine Kirk is one of the few examples they can cite.

County Attorney Polk mentions the case routinely as part of her ongoing jihad against a proposed legalization measure expected to be on the Arizona ballot next year.

Mitch Morrissey, Denver's district attorney, is another anti-cannabis politician who has taken a public position against his state's legalization experiment. In a recent interview with New Times, he points to Kirk as a prime example of how "the marijuana now on our streets . . . makes some people psychotic. They can become homicidal."

Morrissey, like Polk, suggests the Kirk case shows why other states — like Arizona — should not go down the same green path as Colorado.

But Morrissey's stance is hypocritical: He's the chief prosecutor in Denver, and he's going after Kirk for first-degree murder on the basis that Kirk fully intended to kill Kristine.

When confronted about this fact, the D.A. admits, "Well, he doesn't have that much marijuana on board."

Morrissey's referring to Kirk's toxicology test, which showed the presence of 2.3 nanograms of active THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana. That's less than half the state's legal limit (5 nanograms) for driving.

Plus, Kirk may have had a motive for wanting to slay his spouse, according to a court motion filed in June by Morrissey's office.

Although initial reports about the shooting didn't bring up marital problems, the motion revealed the couple had been fighting over the previous months. Police had responded to a previous domestic incident at the home. A month before the shooting, Richard Kirk told a friend he needed to live apart from his wife for a while and had stopped his paychecks from automatic deposit in the couple's joint account. The couple was behind on IRS payments and had $40,000 in credit card debt. Kristine had told a co-worker she was "scared" of her husband following a recent fight.

Financial and emotional stress contributed to Kirk's "conscious decision to kill his wife and rebuts any anticipated defense that Defendant was not acting intentionally or knowingly at the time of the homicide," the motion states.

So much for Morrissey's example that pot can turn innocent people homicidal.

There are no other examples.

Richard Kirk killed wife Kristine and blames cannabis as a defense.
Richard Kirk killed wife Kristine and blames cannabis as a defense.

Several reports published this year suggest cannabis' potential for danger:

• In Colorado, a study published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine shows that marijuana-related hospital visits have increased by about 1 percent per year since 2009, when the state's medical-marijuana program began taking off. Calls to poison-control centers are up by 56 percent since 2009.

• An anti-legalization law enforcement task force in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, released a controversial report in September showing that marijuana-related traffic deaths, DUIs, hospital visits, and calls to poison-control centers are up significantly since legalization.

• The Washington State Traffic Commission released a report last month asserting that "marijuana is increasing as a factor in deadly crashes."

• In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning about cannabis-infused edibles and detailed the March 2014 death of Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old college student from Wyoming who jumped from a balcony in Denver after eating a marijuana cookie.

Anti-pot activists continue to portray marijuana as Public Enemy Number 1, a substance that kills either outright or through accidents caused by its users.

The central Arizona substance-abuse group Matforce, in part by using public funds, runs a propaganda campaign called "Marijuana Harmless? Think Again" that focuses on the supposed ill effects of marijuana. Besides holding up the Thamba and Kirk cases as prime examples, the campaign has put up billboards around town warning that marijuana is much more potent than it used to be, that it might hurt children who accidentally eat it, and that it lowers IQ.

In the June op-ed based on a state Department of Health Services report in 2013, Polk wrote that the deaths of 62 children resulted from marijuana. But officials with the state DHS tell New Times that Polk is wrong — that no evidence exists that marijuana ever killed anyone in Arizona.

This month, Polk and right-wing talk show host Seth Leibsohn, who together lead the anti-legalization group Arizonans for Responsible Legalization, had their latest anti-marijuana essay published in newspapers across the state, insisting that "pot failed in Colorado." They urge Arizona residents to read the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report, which purportedly shows how legalization in Colorado has been associated with traffic deaths.

The Rocky Mountain HIDTA, however, has been roundly criticized as the biased work of a group with a history of fighting legalization.

Forbes contributor Jacob Sullum pointed out some of the report's flaws in a recent article, such as a suspicious mistake — later declared a typo by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity group — that showed 50 percent support for Colorado legalization in a poll when the real figure was 58 percent.

Besides outright mistakes like that, the "more general problem is a confirmation bias that leads the task force to collect every scrap of information that reflects badly on legalization while ignoring anything that suggests a more positive (or less negative) view," Sullum wrote.

In spite of the report's flaws, some of which may have been intentional, it falls far short of making the case that marijuana is harmful or that it has caused physical harm to Coloradans.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, never a supporter of his state's cannabis revolution, said in September that reports of Colorado's becoming a disaster area because of legalization are overblown.

"People read about one failure of the system — a tragic accident — and they don't see the context," Hickenlooper tells New Times' sister paper in Denver, Westword. "There are tragic accidents every day, everywhere: accidental deaths, prescription-drug abuse — over 1,000 people died from that last year. No one cared, but if someone died from overdosing on marijuana, it's on the front page of the newspaper. It would serve people better to have a sense of proportion."

All of the latest reports from Colorado and Washington state about the theoretical danger of marijuana contain critical omissions.

The reports on marijuana-related vehicle fatalities contain no data on whether any driver testing positive for marijuana was believed to have caused a crash. The reports don't say conclusively whether any driver was impaired by pot.

Because of this, officials in Colorado and Washington actually have no idea whether people impaired by marijuana have caused more traffic collisions in the past few years.

Limitations on data also prevent firm conclusions about what the increase in emergency room visits and calls to poison-control centers really means. Neither the study in the preventive-medicine journal nor the Rocky Mountain High Intensity report contain information on whether patients died or suffered ill effects from exposure to marijuana. And the data gathered in the study and report doesn't separate marijuana-only calls and hospital visits from those that also involved alcohol or other drugs.

Though scientific knowledge of the actual harm caused by marijuana — either by its use outright or by fatal or serious accidents from marijuana impairment — remains limited, the lack of data could be considered data itself.

Few would argue that marijuana — or any substance — is completely harmless to humans. Long-term, heavy marijuana use, some studies have shown, could lower IQ, cause cancer, or degrade lung function.

But so far, the statistics prove that cannabis is way closer to harmless than harmful.

Prohibitionists Like Arizona County Attorneys Sheila Polk and Bill Montgomery Insist That Pot Is Hurting People. All They Lack Is Real Evidence
Ray Stern

Authorities agree that the bizarre story of Levy Pongi Thamba, which occurred in Denver a month before the murder of Kristine Kirk, should be counted as a marijuana death.

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Thamba, 19, a foreign student from the Republic of Congo, was on the fourth floor of a Denver Holiday Inn on March 11, 2014, partying with friends for spring break, when he apparently lost his mind.

Like many novice consumers of marijuana edibles had done before him, Thamba ate too much of an infused cannabis cookie after failing to feel an effect from a smaller amount he'd eaten an hour earlier. His friends later reported that a couple of hours later, the student started raving incoherently and tearing objects from the walls. They were able to calm him down for a bit. Then, according to official reports, he jumped out of bed, walked outside the hotel room, and leaped over a balcony railing to his death.

A coroner's report blamed the cookie, noting that Thamba had no prior history of physical or mental problems. He'd eaten six times the recommended dosage on the cookie's package. The autopsy revealed a high level of active THC in his system, 7.2 nanograms. His bloodstream also contained 49 nanograms of the inactive cannabis metabolite, carboxy THC, suggesting that his body already had processed a very large amount of the drug before he died.

Thamba's death spurred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning in July of this year about marijuana edibles. The one-page "Notes from the Field" report by lead author Jessica Hancock-Allen, CDC epidemic intelligence service officer, states that this was the "first reported death in Colorado linked to marijuana consumption without evidence of [use of another intoxicating substance, such as alcohol]" since the 2012 legalization vote. The case represents a "potential danger" of edible cannabis products and implies "a need for improved public health messaging to reduce the risk for overconsumption of THC."

In fact, the public messaging already had been tweaked by the time of the CDC report, and Colorado stiffened regulations on the packaging of legal edibles, particularly to prevent accidental ingestion of THC-laden products that look like ordinary food and drink.

Whether the warnings about edibles were needed, or whether they were effective, is debatable.

What is not debatable is this: There is no other reported tragedy like the Thamba tragedy.

Indeed, Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, confirms that the Thamba tragedy remains the only known case in which consumption of marijuana is believed to have led directly to a death.

Despite the news about Thamba, marijuana edibles have proliferated dramatically in the past 20 months, and not just in Colorado, where more than 2 million legal edibles are estimated to have been consumed last year. State-legal sales of edibles and smokable cannabis have occurred of late at recreational pot retail shops in Washington and Oregon. In Arizona, one of 23 states with medical-marijuana stores, edible sales at legal dispensaries made up about 10 percent of the total volume of cannabis sold.

If you assume that Thamba's death was caused by the THC cookie (a detail some still would debate) and even if you assume the unlikely proposition that Kirk never would have harmed his wife if not for marijuana, statistics vastly are on marijuana's side.

In this light, a fatal reaction like Thamba's clearly is something on the order of a million-to-one event.

Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, says state officials are exploring new ways to learn if marijuana use affects the risk of a collision.
Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, says state officials are exploring new ways to learn if marijuana use affects the risk of a collision.
Courtney Pedroza

One of the most quoted statistics about marijuana is that nobody has died from an overdose — as far as scientists know.

The reason is that marijuana doesn't much affect the body's automatic functions. Alcohol, in contrast, affects the brain in a much more serious manner, sometimes leading to brain damage in poisoning survivors. Too much booze can shut down breathing. It also can suppress the gag reflex, leading to a choking death in an unconscious person. According to the CDC, an average of six Americans die of an alcohol overdose daily.

Cannabis has "almost no effect" on breathing function "so you don't get that kind of OD," says Carl Hart, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Colombia University who has studied cannabis extensively.

Not that people aren't trying. Numerous videos on YouTube feature hardcore stoners trying to smoke the most concentrated cannabis resin, which can contain THC levels exceeding 90 percent. Daily Beast contributor James Joiner wrote a column earlier this year about how he "ate 90 servings of THC and lived." The 40-year-old writer, who described himself as a very infrequent cannabis user, writes that he fell asleep 90 minutes after the massive dose and woke up 15 hours later.

The intense and sudden concentration of THC in the body following consumption of an edible can produce a much more unpleasant experience in some people. Intense paranoia and scattered thoughts can occur in novice users with ingestion of a relatively small amount of cannabis, a fact that adds to the intrigue in the cases of Kirk and Thamba. A fascinating and humorous example of this effect arose in 2006 when Edward Sanchez, a former Dearborn, Michigan police officer, took home a quarter-ounce of seized pot, baked it into brownies, and consumed it with his wife. Not long after, Sanchez called 911 in a now-viral audio recording.

"I think I'm having an overdose and so is my wife," Sanchez tells the operator in a clear but urgent voice. "I think we're dying . . . I think we're dead. I really do."

His wife was on the floor "barely breathing," he says in the recording. He begs to be rescued.

Sanchez and his wife weren't hurt in the ordeal, though he lost his job.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a popular piece last year about eating a couple of bites of a caramel-chocolate candy bar she bought in Colorado that caused her to "lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours."

The effect obviously can seem more dramatic to someone who accidentally ingests cannabis. In March, a 58-year-old Michigan man who ate infused cookies his daughter had left on a counter thought he was having a stroke when the THC kicked in. He was later released from a hospital and fully recovered.

As various studies show, more people have called poison-control centers and visited hospitals because of marijuana in recent years. Prohibitionists have touted this data as proof that marijuana is causing a public health nightmare. But a close look at the numbers and what they don't reveal still leaves the anti-cannabis side short of victims.

No doubt, panicking over the effects of marijuana isn't a good thing. It's especially worrisome when children are involved. Such cases have risen dramatically in recent years, studies show, catching the attention of researchers in Colorado and Arizona. One study on the troublesome trend published in June in the Clinical Pediatrics Journal showed a 147 percent increase in poison-control center calls nationwide concerning kids ages 5 and younger exposed to marijuana. According to the study, which covered a period from 2000 to 2013, the increase was more pronounced in states that had legalized marijuana for medicinal use. But an increase of 63 percent in that time frame also was noted in states that had not legalized pot.

Yet while the percentage increase of such cases is dramatic, the overall number of such cases isn't. The study found just 1,969 pot-related calls about children 5 and younger nationwide in that 13-year time frame. This breaks down to three per state, per year.

But even more telling is that of those cases, only 18 percent involved hospitalization. Just 21 of the 1,969 patients were believed to have life-threatening symptoms. And every one of the 21 recovered fully within about a day.

Frank LoVecchio, assistant director of the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Arizona, says he's concerned that cannabis-related calls to the center about children 5 and under were "almost zero" in the early 2000s but have now become routine. In an article by LoVecchio published in June in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, a review of such cases at Banner's centers found zero in 2010, six in 2011, 27 in 2012 and 16 in 2013.

Bill Montgomery, Maricopa County Attorney
Bill Montgomery, Maricopa County Attorney
YouTube

Seventeen of the cases involved a trip to the hospital, and of those, two of the young patients — who, coincidentally, had both eaten infused chocolate chip cookies — had breathing problems. Yet both recovered fully.

Overall, such cases are very uncommon. During that three-year time span, pediatric cannabis-related calls made up just .03 of 1 percent of the 180,000 calls to Banner's poison-control hotlines in Tucson and Phoenix.

So what's the bottom line on marijuana safety?

"That's the million-dollar question," says LoVecchio, reticent to weigh in on a medical issue that's loaded with political baggage. He points out, though, that the rise in cases of children exposed to cannabis seems to have leveled off in the past couple of years.

Statistics provided by Banner Health show that calls regarding Arizona teens exposed to cannabis generally have declined since 2010, the year voters approved the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. Seventy-six such calls to Banner's poison-control centers were recorded in 2010, but that fell in subsequent years to a low of 45 in 2013. The number spiked last year at 59.

Calls to Banner about adults exposed to marijuana have nearly doubled since 2010, going from 58 to 98 last year, the increase driven by a doubling in reported exposures by 20-somethings. The figures don't separate marijuana-only exposures from those that may have involved other drugs, and it's unknown whether the patients tested positive for THC.

With no recorded deaths or permanent disabilities from any of these cases in scientific annals, the biggest medical problem with cannabis is that, for some people, especially little kids, symptoms may resemble something serious.

True, of all the potentially harmful substances a toddler or adult could accidentally ingest, marijuana may rank among the safest. Yet once a negative reaction manifests itself, it's possible that no one may realize what's going wrong until after an expensive and possibly invasive medical work-up begins.

Levi Pongi Thamba, 19, jumped from a Denver hotel balcony last year after eating a marijuana cookie.
Levi Pongi Thamba, 19, jumped from a Denver hotel balcony last year after eating a marijuana cookie.

The Rocky Mountain High Intensity report released in September no doubt would have listed examples of Thamba-like cases if more had occurred. It focuses extensively on the reported increase in ER visits and poison-center calls, though it omits the fact that 100 percent of the cases resulted in positive outcomes for the patients.

Tom Gorman, director of the report and an avid anti-legalization activist, holds up his group's findings to media around the world as proof that Colorado made a big mistake with legalization. Recently, following the election of pro-cannabis Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gorman warned readers of a Canadian newspaper that the effects of legalization in Colorado have been "grim."

Another huge concern in the Colorado report is the increased number of marijuana DUI cases and fatal crashes that involved a driver whose autopsy revealed the presence of THC.

"Colorado marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 92 percent from 2010 to 2014," the report states, adding that all traffic deaths increased by 8 percent in that time frame.

Meanwhile, a lengthy report issued by the Washington State Traffic Commission last month details a similar doubling of marijuana-related traffic fatalities in the past four years: In 2014, the blood of 84 percent of drivers tested positive for THC, compared to 44 percent in 2010.

The problem for the public in evaluating these facts is that neither the Washington or Colorado reports studied whether the drivers caused the crashes. Most of the blood samples came from deceased drivers, though the Washington study apparently included some surviving drivers. Officials from both states tell New Times that because of limitations in how the data was gathered, they have no idea whether marijuana-impaired drivers are causing more crashes than in the past.

The Rocky Mountain High Intensity group could have researched the facts of each fatal crash involving a THC-positive driver, but it didn't — even though who's causing the crashes arguably is the most relevant question in the debate.

"It would seem like we would know that," Gorman says to a reporter. "I think you're bringing up a good point."

One of the few certainties of the Washington report is that not all the drivers who tested positive for THC were the "primary causers" of a crash, says Staci Hoffman, research director for the state's traffic commission.

For the study, Hoffman and other researchers started with the 3,027 drivers known to be involved in fatal crashes in Washington from 2010 to 2014. Of those, 1,733 had been given a blood test either while alive or dead. About 19 percent of those tested, or 342 drivers, tested positive for either active THC or the carboxy-THC metabolite. (By comparison, 641 of the 1,733 tested positive for alcohol.)

Most of the THC-positive drivers also were drunk or on drugs in addition to cannabis.

THC — either active or carboxy — and nothing else was found in just 93 of the 1,773 drivers, or about 5 percent. That's the maximum number of THC-only drivers who could have caused crashes.

But Hoffman acknowledges that it's possible there's "no correlation" between marijuana use and the crashes in many of the THC-only cases and that perhaps drivers merely were "in the wrong place at the wrong time. "

She discusses one case known to researchers in which a driver who was drunk and high on pot turned in front of another vehicle, killing a driver who was found to have two nanograms of active THC in his system. A good question to which researchers may never know the answer, she says, is whether a dead THC-positive driver who didn't cause a crash may nevertheless have been able to avoid it if not for the THC.

The issue of THC and causation in crashes will continue to be studied intensely in the near future, Hoffman says.

There's little question that such study is needed in this era of increased marijuana experimentation and decriminalization. In a recent survey of Washington residents, Hoffman says, 10 percent of respondents admitted to marijuana use, and of those, 40 percent admitted that they had driven within three hours of consuming pot. This extrapolates to about 150,000 adult drivers in Washington driving within three hours of use on any given day, she says.

Marijuana can impair drivers, studies have shown. Pot DUI investigations typically begin when a driver is pulled over for a driving faux pas. Cases of stoned drivers who injure or kill victims certainly do exist. But they're uncommon, the way drunk-driving accidents are common. And it's not just because more people drink.

Because of the spotty way marijuana affects people, it can't be said that everyone driving within three hours of using marijuana was impaired. A very large caveat to the data is that THC and the carboxy metabolite can remain in the body for weeks, which throws off conclusions about drivers who test positive for them.

Carl Hart, the Columbia researcher, led a well-publicized study in 2000 that showed how habitual users don't show negative cognitive effects after toking up because of their THC tolerance — a factoid that clearly has some bearing on the question of driving. Other studies have shown remarkable differences in how marijuana affects different users: A novice user can become extremely impaired after consuming a tiny bit of marijuana while an experienced user may show no obvious impairment with far in excess of the 5 nanogram driving limit in Colorado and Washington.

In contrast to drunk drivers, pot-impaired drivers display different — and often better — judgment in driving. One of marijuana's most infamous side effects, paranoia, helps control driver behavior. Studies have shown that drivers under the influence of THC tend to drive the speed limit and leave lots of space between themselves and the vehicle ahead of them.

The recent Washington traffic report shows that drivers who tested positive for just THC were more likely than any group — including sober drivers — to be properly buckled up. The same report showed that drivers under the influence of alcohol were far more likely to have been unbuckled and speeding in any crash.

Marijuana users need to beware of the combined danger of driving while both high and drunk, the report shows. Only 30 percent of THC-only drivers in the study had been speeding before a fatal crash, compared to 63 percent of drivers who tested positive for both alcohol and THC. Yet alcohol was a huge contributor to the problem in these crashes, judging by the fact that 56 percent of alcohol-only drivers had been speeding. (Twenty-one percent of drivers who tested negative for drugs and alcohol were speeding.)

In 2013, New Times conducted a survey of hundreds of serious injury and fatal crashes in metro Phoenix and around the state, looking at the toxicology reports of drivers thought to have caused the collisions. Only about 1 percent of such crashes in 2012 and 2013 involved culpable drivers who tested positive only for THC, which was lower than the percentage of suspected impaired drivers who tested negative for drugs or alcohol.

The public will learn more about marijuana's role in car crashes in the next couple of years from changes planned on accident forms police fill out.

Partly because of inquiries by New Times, accident forms in Arizona next year will include check-boxes for whether marijuana was associated with a crash and whether the driver had a medical-marijuana card, said Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Currently, suspected marijuana-related crashes are categorized with crashes that involve all illegal drugs, making it impossible to determine the number of pot-related incidents without an extensive review like the one New Times conducted in 2013. Colorado officials are working on a similar change to crash reports.

For now, Arizona voters who will decide next year if the state should legalize marijuana for all adults 21 and older must rely on limited data and anecdotal evidence of problems.

Despite repeated requests in the last few months, outspoken pot-prohibitionists Polk and Bill Montgomery, the county attorneys in Yavapai and Maricopa counties respectively, did not provide New Times with a single case of a THC-only driver prosecuted for killing or seriously injuring anyone.

Polk and Montgomery have a strong incentive to find and publicize such a case. But even if they did, it would be the exception that proves the rule.

Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Task Force, believes the effects of legalization in Colorado have been “grim.”
Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Task Force, believes the effects of legalization in Colorado have been “grim.”
Courtesy of Tom Gorman

During an intense rainstorm on March 1, 2014, Army veteran Andy Zorn was cut down from the tree in Peoria from which he'd hanged himself. He was 31.

His mother, Sally Schindel, later found a note in his bedroom that read: "Marijuana killed my soul + ruined my brain."

Since then, Schindel has become one of Arizona's leading voices against legalization, touring schools to tell her son's story and becoming treasurer of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy.

Yet marijuana may have been the least of Zorn's problems. As stated in his obituary, written by Schindel, "depression and multiple other issues caused him to think he had never been happy and could never become happy again. His death by suicide . . . was to spare his family and friends a future of him getting worse."

After she wrote that, Schindel says she "researched" marijuana and became more fixated on the plant as the root cause of her son's problems. She estimates he first tried pot at age 13.

"I am firmly convinced that marijuana caused his mental illness," she says.

Schindel shared with New Times a page from a report issued on Zorn during one of his hospitalizations a few years ago. Written by a local psychiatrist, the form labels Zorn with a probable diagnosis of "unspecified depressive disorder; cannabis use disorder, severe; alcohol use disorder, mild; unspecified personality disorder."

There seems to be no doubt Zorn used a lot of cannabis. But no one knows the ultimate cause of his mental illness and why he committed suicide.

Schindel, having buried her son only last year, can be forgiven for her beliefs about the plant.

Whether pot prohibitionists should be using the emotional woman to spread fear of cannabis is another issue. But in their Reefer Madness zeal to prevent legalization, they need what few cases like Zorn's or Thamba's that they can scare up.


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