Thomas Dean’s career as a cannabis lawyer in Arizona began in 1994, long before marijuana had been decriminalized for any purpose in the state.
That year, he was working for criminal defense lawyer Lee Phillips in Flagstaff and handling a broad range of marijuana-related offenses. In 1995, he attended his first legal seminar for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and joined its legal committee (he’s now a lifetime member). Dean served as NORML’s legal director at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. from 1997 until 2000, when he moved back to Flagstaff to focus his practice solely on marijuana-related cases. A few years ago, he co-founded the Arizona Cannabis Bar Association. Over the past 20 years, he’s defended hundreds of clients charged with every type of marijuana offense, including possession, cultivation, sales, transportation, and DUI. He's also emerged as a valuable resource for those who seek to understand the ramifications of last year's passage of recreational legalization.
We caught up with Dean recently to learn a little more about his background and what he's seeing on the horizon in terms of Arizona's legal trends regarding pot.
How did you find yourself in Phoenix, defending marijuana-related cases?
After the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act passed in 2010, I found myself kind of being the only guy in Arizona who held himself out as a marijuana or cannabis lawyer, and I had a lot of people contacting me. A lot of key cases were going on at that point. The governor was challenging the constitutionality of the entire Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, and there were a lot of other things going on. I was driving back and forth two or three times a week from Flagstaff and just thought, You know, I'm just going to move down to Phoenix temporarily until we get all of this straightened out. Well, here we are 10 years later and we’re still trying to figure it out. And now we have this whole new law to start all over again.
What’s your opinion of how the legal recreational sales program is going so far? Have you already seen an impact on the criminal justice system?
Well, it’s been interesting. Law enforcement has been very oddly quiet since the passage of the Smart and Safe Arizona Act. We know there is a lot of illegal activity taking place. Many people are so bold as to take out ads and have websites and everything selling clones or seeds and that sort of thing, which is all illegal without a license — yet we’re not really seeing any enforcement action. And I think part of it is just that there’s such a huge backlog right now from the courts being essentially closed for the last year and a half during COVID. Their criminal investigations continued, but no new charges were being filed because with the courts being mostly closed down, they just couldn’t handle the volume. And for a long time during social distancing laws, they couldn’t convene grand juries and trial juries.
The system can barely handle just the regular case flow… and now all of a sudden, we’re going to have this avalanche of petitions for expungement that the county attorney’s office is going to have to handle. So, they’re gearing up for that, which is a huge distraction of resources. So, I don't know, it’s really hard to say when we’re going to see some of these investigations come to fruition of this black market activity that’s been going on here for the last few months. But I don’t think for a second that law enforcement has just decided to kind of give up on it and just let everything go.
How many people do you anticipate will be filing for expungement after petitioning begins on July 12?
It’s hard to give an exact number, the way arrests are recorded by the Department of Public Safety. With the exception of possession of marijuana, it’s hard to tell which convictions or arrests are eligible for expungement. What we do know is that people recorded as actually being arrested for possession of marijuana in the last 15 years is approximately 200,000 people [and] the vast majority are going to qualify for expungement. So, I can tell you that we’re looking at probably around 200,000 people statewide eligible to have their possession of marijuana conviction expunged. Probably at least half, if not more than half, of those are going to be here in Maricopa County. So, just on possession of marijuana alone, just that category of offense, and here in Maricopa County and just for the last 15 years, there’s likely about a hundred thousand people that are eligible for expungement.
What are some steps the state could take to really improve social equity around cannabis in Arizona?
The way the rules are written, there’s nothing stopping the social equity-qualified applicant who is awarded a license from turning around and selling it that same day to someone who is not a social equity-qualified person. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening right now. There's a lot of larger investors, or what are sometimes referred to as multi-state operators, already out there actively seeking people who appear to have expungement-eligible marijuana convictions to try and sign them up as a social equity applicant, but having them sign away their ownership rights to the license as a condition of them funding their expungement. And they’re paying for their ($5,000) application fee and putting their application together and everything. So, most of these licenses are going to disappear and just be rolled into the portfolios of multi-state operators.
We had an opportunity to have a permanent social equity license category, something that could go on for the indefinite future. It’s sad to me to see that’s just going to disappear, like, overnight. I think it would have been better if they protected licenses so that they could only be sold to other social equity-qualified persons, but the department doesn’t want to deal with that, because that would mean that every time there was a proposed sale, the department would have to review it and agree that the buyer or the company buying it was at least 51 percent- owned by a social equity-qualified person. I don’t think it’s that difficult to do, but I don’t think they want to be bothered with it.