Sheriff Joe's Pot Connection: Campaign Guru Chad Willems

Okay, Joe's connection isn't really this good, but if he did partake, imagine how mellow he'd be...
Okay, Joe's connection isn't really this good, but if he did partake, imagine how mellow he'd be...
New Times Photo-Illustration. Arpaio by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons. All else via Shutterstock.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a serious pot connection, one that may score us all legal ganja come 2016: Republican political consultant Chad Willems of Summit Consulting Group.

For many years, Willems has been Arpaio's campaign guru and money man, helping Arpaio raise millions, outspending Arpaio's opponents, and braking off a portion of the proceeds for services rendered by his company. 

Now Willems is pimping one of several proposed initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana consumption in this state, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is expected to be on Arizona's 2016 general election ballot.

The group behind the effort, the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, hired Willems earlier this year as a campaign consultant, a job he will perform while keeping happy his political golden goose, Sheriff Joe.

Anything wrong with that? After all, Willems is a hired gun. It's not like he's a man of the cloth or a mendicant, for heaven's sake.

Why, Willems even once worked for recalled, ex-state Senate President Russell Peace, which shows you how low Willems is willing to go in the hunt for a buck.

Problem is, one of Willems' biggest clients, also known as "America's toughest sheriff," long has opposed the legalization of all illicit drugs, even one as benign as pot.

In both of his memoirs, Sheriff Joe Arpaio: America's Toughest Sheriff (1996) and Joe's Law (2008), the former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration honcho rails against the evils of illegal drugs and rejects out of hand the suggestion that marijuana should be legal.

Arpaio concedes that marijuana is seen by the general public as "relatively harmless" and "no worse than" wine or whiskey. But he likens pot to pornography, warning that if restrictions are lifted, everyone will be doing it, and it will be readily available, like porn is today. 

Conflict? What conflict? Willems advises both a big pro-pot legalization initiative and anti-pot pol Sheriff Joe.
Conflict? What conflict? Willems advises both a big pro-pot legalization initiative and anti-pot pol Sheriff Joe.

"The legal prohibition against drugs keeps millions of Americans from doing them," Arpaio states in Joe's Law. "For that reason alone, drugs cannot be legalized. Nor should they be decriminalized."

It's a position Arpaio has been consistent on, for the most part. He wavered a bit during an interview for the 2007 documentary American Drug War: The Last White Hope, in which he seemed to leave open the door for medical ganja.

"I don't know if I'm strictly opposed to medical marijuana...[if it] can help the dying patient," he told his interviewer. "But it has to be dispensed by a doctor, just like codeine and other drugs."

This wiggle room was all gone by 2010, when Arpaio came out against Proposition 203, a medical marijuana initiative backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, the same group plugging this cycle's Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Arpaio denounced Prop 203 at a press conference sponsored by anti-medicinal pot group Keep AZ Drug Free. He was joined at the podium by then-state Senator Pearce, who would be recalled the following year.

Still, Prop 203 passed by a razor thin margin.

Arpaio's concern over illegal drugs continues. It even rivals his disapproval of illegal immigration.

In a recent interview with Breitbart.com, he said he wanted to meet with Mexican officials about the two problems and offered that illegal drugs coming from Mexico "should be the major issue."

Arpaio in 2010, opposing a medical marijuana initiative that eventually passed.
Arpaio in 2010, opposing a medical marijuana initiative that eventually passed.
Stephen Lemons

Indeed, Arpaio's views on pot mirror those of the Republican base in Arizona.  

A poll released in June by Phoenix's Behavior Research Center showed that 53 percent of Arizonans supported the legalization of pot for recreational use.

But a strong majority of Republicans statewide — 61 percent — is opposed to such legalization.

The Arizona Republican Party's leadership also is against any pot-legalization efforts.

In a June press release, state GOP chairman Robert Graham said the drive to put a legalization initiative on the ballot sends "a profoundly disturbing message to our children about the choices they will be making in life."

Instead, Graham said the U.S. needs to "reverse" the trend of marijuana "ending up in the hands of children and young teens."

About a month later, the Arizona GOP released its own poll results, claiming to show that, overall, 58 percent of likely voters opposed pot legalization, and that more than 70 percent of Arizona Republicans were against it as well.

Willems has yet to respond to a request for comment, but Carlos Alfaro, a spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, confirmed that Willems is directly involved in consulting work for the campaign. 

Alfaro said he didn't see any conflict with Summit Consulting's being employed by both Arpaio and CRMLA.

"They're their own company and they want to see personal liberty furthered," said Alfaro. "So I don't really see that as a conflict."

In fact, you could argue that Willems is a wise choice to advise the group, the next best thing to having Arpaio himself endorse marijuana legalization.

Which seems unlikely to happen, by the way.

Almost the entirety of Arpaio's career has been spent battling illicit drugs, whether he was busting small time peddlers, earning him the nickname "Nickel Bag Joe," or working in countries like Turkey and Nicaragua for the U.S. government. 

Arpaio started out as an agent for the now-defunct Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under the aegis of the U.S. Treasury Department.

FBN's first commissioner, a man Arpaio's been known to praise, was Harry Anslinger, best known for demonizing marijuana as a devil weed that could cause hallucinations and lead to acts of drugged violence, like rape and murder.

The FBN eventually morphed into the DEA, and Arpaio went on to become the DEA's special agent in charge of its Arizona office, retiring in 1982, and eventually running for sheriff in 1992.

Fast forward to now, and Arpaio's in political bed with the man who wants to bring legal Mary Jane to the Grand Canyon State.

Seems doubtful that, were he among the living, Joe's old boss, Commissioner Anslinger, would approve.

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