Arizona's tight-knit cannabis rights community is grieving the loss of one of its most prominent members, Mikel Weisser, who died unexpectedly on Wednesday at age 61 of a heart attack.
A former plumber and middle-school teacher, Weisser, who was the executive director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, (NORML), had been at the forefront of marijuana legalization efforts for more than a decade. As a perennial Democratic Congressional candidate, he had tried repeatedly in recent years to oust Republican Paul Gosar in the conservative Congressional District 4,.
Personable and talkative, Weisser had an eccentric side to his manner and style, routinely wearing similar, white button-up shirts, always toting a pink Thermos of water, and carrying an Altoid tin of cannabis in his pocket. He was a consummate cannabis consumer, but he defied stereotypes of the unmotivated stoner as he kept his schedule packed with personal meetings, educational events, and campaign stops.
"Everyone knew him in the Arizona cannabis industry," said Demitri Downing, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association of Arizona, describing him as a "tireless advocate" who "literally slept on couches and floors."
"He's a face that has always been there at every event," said local cannabis business lawyer Laura Bianchi, former co-chair of the local advocacy group Women Grow. "He was very supportive."
Weisser is survived by his wife, Beth, vice president of the Kingman Unified School District board.
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"Arizona lost a great one," Phoenix Cannabis Coalition Director Michelle Mushee Westenfield said, sobbing as she spoke. "This really hurts a lot. It's shocking. He has done so much for our community."
She said she'll never forget going to court with Weisser as advocates for medical cannabis concentrates, which for a time were declared illegal for patients by Arizona courts. The state Supreme Court agreed in a May 2019 opinion that the 2010 medical marijuana law covered concentrates.
Westenfield said that Beth Weisser, who couldn't be reached on Thursday, told her that Mikel had complained of some back pain after finishing up some yard work at their home in So-Hi on Wednesday, and started feeling worse until Beth drove him to the hospital in Kingman.
"He never made it out of the parking lot," Westenfield said.
Originally from Texas, Weisser was homeless for part of his early life, a statement by NORML says, but he obtained a college degree at the University of Illinois at the age of 30, and then a master's degree in education from Northern Arizona University, which kick-started his teaching career.
He was named NORML's Arizona director in 2015, when the local cannabis community experienced splintering over the contentious Prop 205, a legalization initiative that failed in 2016. As a former leader at Safer Arizona, he told Phoenix New Times in 2015 that when Safer Arizona's leaders told him to join them in opposition to Prop 205 or take a hike, he left, figuring that saving thousands of Arizonans annually from felony arrest over cannabis was more important than quibbling over the proposition's details.
“I was incredibly sad to hear of the passing of my friend, a great activist, political maverick and wonderful human being Mikel Weisser," said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri in the statement. “He contributed to the betterment of the lives of those not just in his state, but across the country. I’ll miss our lively discussions at the NORML conferences and the positivity and passion he brought to his work. Rest in power, Mikel.”
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For the past year, Weisser had been focused intently on the latest marijuana legalization effort in Arizona, the Smart and Safe Act, which reportedly has gathered well over 300,000 signatures and stands a good chance of making the November ballot. Stacy Pearson, a senior vice president at Strategies 360 who is running the Smart and Safe campaign, said that Weisser had provided input on every paragraph in the proposed act. She described him as a "cheerleader" and "teddy bear" who wouldn't shy away from confrontation, but employed schoolteacher skills to avoid "condemning" those he disagreed with.
"He just wanted good policy for Arizona," Pearson said. "I can barely imagine a victory party without Mikel Weisser."
MITA of Arizona is sponsoring a GoFundMe page, with donations going "to Beth Weisser to help cover some of the burdens of this unexpected tragedy."