An Arizona cannabis activist sees trouble in a recent meeting between Governor Doug Ducey and several medical-marijuana industry representatives.
"It means traditional powers are consolidating their power in an industry that hoped to be more egalitarian and communal," Mikel Weisser, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, (NORML), told Phoenix New Times.
Early Wednesday morning, Weisser fired off an email blast to "the leadership of many of AZ’s leading cannabis organizations," telling them that Ducey's meeting meant that legislation he hoped to see passed this year is dead, for now.
Weisser's urgent email reported that this week the legislation's progress had made a "critical turn" that he believed was related to the April 4 meeting between the governor and select industry representatives.
In the meeting, Ducey chatted with a small group of dispensary lobbyists and operators. It may have been his first-ever such meeting with the medical marijuana industry since voters elected him in 2014. The Republican governor has been a staunch opponent of the state's voter-approved medical-marijuana law, and campaigned heavily against the state's adult-use measure, Prop 205, in 2016. He's up for re-election this fall.
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"Met today with members of the medical marijuana community to discuss how we can see eye-to-eye on improving the law and protecting public health," the governor tweeted on April 4. "Thank you for a really productive conversation."
The governor tweeted photos of the group, which included: Ducey; Kirk Adams, his chief of staff; lobbyists Christa Severns and Kevin, Ryan, and Joe DeMenna, who represent the Arizona Dispensary Association (ADA); Mark Steinmetz, ADA president and chief executive with Nature's Medicines; Ryan Hurley, general counsel at Copperstate Farms (which is owned by former Governor Fife Symington's son); and Dustin and Chelsea Johnson, principals of Monarch dispensary and Omaha Farms.
Ducey's office didn't respond to a request for comment about the meeting.
Weisser, in his email to activists, wrote that the meeting foretold the end of the hard work he and others had put into a raft of bills this legislative session intended to improve the 2010 medical cannabis law. NORML crafted six bills this session and was involved in a total of 24, he wrote.
"Neither our legislative sponsor, popular conservative Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli, nor our organization, nor the lobbyists for the AZ MITA (Marijuana Industry Trade Association, our longtime allies) was invited" to the meeting with Ducey, Weisser wrote.
At the start of April, lawmakers were still theoretically considering SB 1420, which mandates testing dispensary cannabis for contaminants like mold, and four other cannabis-related bills. Those included two bills by cannabis prohibitionists that NORML and other activists opposed.
"By Monday of this week, a rumor was making its way around the capitol that the ADA and the governor were moving to kill the testing bill" and other pro-cannabis bills, Weisser wrote in his April 18 email.
Weisser said that he spoke with an ADA lobbyist on Tuesday, who "confirmed that they had met with the governor and pursued an approach of 'killing' everything except the hemp bill, which is technically running on a separate track. The compromise is that the opposition bills get killed as well."
"In the meantime," he added in the email, "the governor, leading politicians and the wealthier dispensary owners are working together to make sure AZ does not get testing for our MMJ program."
In an interview on Wednesday, Weisser stuck by his statements and added that he's not sure promises by the lobbyist that a fresh start for next year will be kept. Ducey and the group agreed to begin new stakeholder meetings on possible 2019 legislation beginning this May, Weisser said he learned.
"This means that we can't have testing, and we can't have autism or opioid use disorder (as qualifying factors for the medical marijuana program) in the near future," he said.
Nor is Weisser hopeful for what will come next: "It's just going to be Lucy and Charlie Brown on the football next year."
He suspects that Ducey wants to be appear friendly to the medical-marijuana community before the November election in an effort to "move some of the marijuana vote in his favor."
Joe DeMenna, the lobbyist who talked with Weisser on Tuesday, said on Wednesday that Weisser had mischaracterized their conversation and "ADA in no way shape or form" struck any sort of deal with the governor on killing bills.
Yet he confirmed that meetings with Arizona leaders about next year's bills would begin in May, and that Weisser's general "prediction" that this year's bills were dead was probably "pretty close."
But unlike Weisser, DeMenna sees the meeting and upcoming negotiations as a big plus. The meeting occurred, DeMenna said, because his father, Kevin DeMenna, knows the governor's chief of staff, Kirk Adams. A 2009 Arizona Republic article states that DeMenna helped Adam obtain his previous position as state House Speaker.
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"The real story is the nuanced approach we've been taking," DeMenna said. "The governor's office would prefer to have a clean slate."
A bill to legalize cultivation of industrial hemp, meanwhile, is on a separate track from the medical cannabis bills, Weisser said, and still has a change of passing.
Although it's probably too late for the medical cannabis bills, Weisser said, proponents should take action while the current legislative session is open.
"...Blast the word to your memberships and encourage another call of support for testing, for lower card costs, autism, and opioid use disorder," he wrote.