Authorities Subvert Voters, Continue Medical Pot War

Chris Martin had an idea for a business in Arizona, where voters passed a law that legalizes medical-marijuana "edibles" under certain conditions.

Last year, the Zonka Bar was born, available in flavors including chocolate and sugar-free peanut butter and infused with marijuana extract. Like other edibles, it was perfect for a medical-marijuana patient who didn't want to smoke, and it's less harmful than a four-pack of wine coolers.

But Martin and his associates didn't follow the rules under the 2010 law, authorities say.

Had they contracted with a so-far-nonexistent state-authorized dispensary to distribute Zonka Bars, their actions would have been legal.

Instead, these entrepreneurs face multiple felony charges and the possibility of years in prison.

In seemingly schizophrenic Arizona, 841,346 voters passed a liberal law that legalizes marijuana for those with certain medical ailments, but the state is governed by rabid conservatives who are some of the law's most vocal opponents.

Local cops could be taking a different approach to this very political issue. They could use reasonable discretion, but they've chosen to side with the prohibitionists.

State law is part of the problem. Not the new law, but the old, obsolete law — the one that says possession of a single grain of marijuana is a felony and that selling, growing, or transporting marijuana or the "narcotic" of "cannabis" are serious felonies. Cops love making felony arrests — and usually it's a good thing. But not in this case.

Police allege that Martin and his associates sold a product labeled as medical marijuana to various "compassion clubs," which, in turn, sold them to medical-marijuana patients.

Without a doubt, this has something do with the burgeoning medical-pot industry authorized by the passage of Prop 203. Law enforcement officials aren't seeing it that way, though.

A Yavapai County task force that calls itself PANT (Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking) led a lengthy investigation into Zonka Bars. No fewer than 100 law officers took part. A September 17 news release from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office about the bust is titled: "P.A.N.T. takes out Drug Sales Syndicate — Items Sold Included Cannabis Candy and Treats."

Four people have been arrested so far: Christopher Lee Martin, 37, and Andrea Lyn Martin, 33, of Prescott and Todd James, 40, and Christopher Goodrich, 39, both of Phoenix. Others may be arrested or charged as the investigation continues, cops say.

Raids took place on September 12 and 13 at a commercial kitchen; the Joint ReLeaf Compassion Club, 3143 East Roosevelt; AZ CPC, 1833 East Indian School Road; Green Cross, 1000 East Indian School Road, and the home of James, all in Phoenix.

And in Prescott, raids occurred at The Green Cross, 919 12th Place, #14, and Hippie Village Emporium, 635 Walnut Road.

Authorities seized 20 pounds of marijuana, "hundreds" of Zonka Bars and other candy made by the company and about $70,000 in cash. Numerous firearms also were recovered (though that would be the case with a raid of many homes in Arizona).

Martin was the leader and master chef who created the line of candy bars and other products, police point out.

Authorities say the investigation began with a tip to Silent Witness, plus other citizen complaints.

But it's not like the Zonka company was skulking around a street corner or attending meetings with Los Zetas. The company has been advertising on the Internet since April. Its website still was up at press time, advertising pot-infused candy bars, lollipops, and ice cream. The site has rolling banners that warn against use by children and recommend getting the advice of a doctor.

Martin and the others are not just charged with selling pot — they're charged with selling a "narcotic." Arizona law has long defined "cannabis" as the resin extracted from marijuana plants, and "cannabis" is deemed a "narcotic" that merits higher penalties.

The 2010 law apparently nullifies that "narcotic" designation by defining usable marijuana as the plant or "any mixture or preparation thereof."

But prosecutors allege that the Zonka folks were operating outside the 2010 law, and, therefore, the harsh "narcotics" designation applies.

Jack Fields, chief of the civil division of the Yavapai County Attorney's Office, says he believes that, in general, distributing a Zonka-like product to a state-authorized dispensary could be legal.

But it's the view of his office that no marijuana can be sold except by dispensaries, which don't exist yet. Patients can exchange marijuana among themselves under some of the law's rules, as long as nothing of value is transferred. Registered caregivers can be reimbursed by patients for some of their expenses. But Fields says nothing in the 2010 law allows for compassion clubs, whose operators claim they're giving away marijuana to dues-paying members.

Although all of Zonka "players" were either medical-marijuana patients or caregivers, the law doesn't allow them to manufacture Zonka candies and sell them wholesale to compassion clubs, Fields says.

The medical-marijuana law, he says, "in our view, calls out very narrow exceptions."

In other words, Yavapai County expects those in the medical-marijuana industry to walk a tightrope — and jail will be waiting if they fall.

Fields acknowledges that his boss, County Attorney Sheila Polk, "has very strong opinions" about the medical-marijuana law.

That's for sure. Polk is one of the state's most vocal anti-marijuana activists. Recently, she even stooped to putting out false propaganda about a supposed plan by Arizona U.S. Attorney John Leonardo to shut down dispensaries if they ever open. ("Polk's Letter Misstates AZ U.S. Attorney's Position," July 31). Her bad info subsequently was picked up and repeated by Sheriff Scott Mascher in his own letter to the governor.

In their letters, the Yavapai officials asked Jan Brewer to prevent any dispensaries from opening. Brewer already has delayed the advent of Arizona's pot shops for more than a year by ordering the rejection of all dispensary applications. Brewer eventually was ordered by a state judge to give voters what they wanted, and some dispensaries may open this month.

But would-be pot-shop operators have been warned by state Attorney General Tom Horne and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, both Republicans, that a judge could decide in a pending lawsuit that federal law trumps the voter-approved medical-pot law. If that happens, Montgomery said, he'll bust everyone he can — even card-holding patients.

An affiliate with Green Cross, one of the targets in the PANT investigation, says the state's "vendetta" against medical marijuana "makes me want to vomit."

The affiliate didn't want to give his name, but he says he knows Chris Martin and the others involved with Zonka personally.

"These are really nice people — they're not criminals," he says. "They have been arrested for creating an edible line. The only drug they were working with was marijuana."

Martin, president of a Prescott Valley motorcycle club that does charity rides, has been in trouble before. A check of court records turned up a conviction for growing pot and a 1996 arrest for criminal damage and assaulting a peace officer.

Whatever Martin's background, he seems to have a head for business.

He just got busy too early.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.
Contact: Ray Stern