Hardcore Pot Activists Want Marijuana Legalized in Arizona Under Their Terms — or Not at All

Sarah Louise Saucedo, a 20-year-old Arizona State University student, is a passionate advocate for legal marijuana who isn’t content to sit on the couch and dream of better drug laws. She’s an energetic and savvy activist who leads a local chapter of the national group Students for Sensible Drug Policy and hopes to speak as one of the delegates of that group next year at a United Nations symposium on international drug treaties.

Saucedo is one of the instruments of change in the national marijuana-freedom movement, a revolution that has resulted in outright legalization in four states and Washington, D.C., plus medical-marijuana programs in nearly half the states. Ostensibly, she’s the last person someone interested in legalization should want to discourage.

But over the summer, Saucedo's support of a potential 2016 ballot initiative pushed by the Marijuana Policy Project’s Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol drew political attacks from the most unlikely of sources: other marijuana-legalization advocates.

Besides the Reefer Madness-style propaganda of prohibitionist Arizona county attorneys Bill Montgomery or Sheila Polk, Saucedo and other supporters of the possible ballot initiative have faced ongoing criticism from supporters of Safer Arizona, a pro-cannabis group, and a well-mobilized campaign for a competing measure that’s poised to confuse the electorate and possibly derail the MPP’s initiative next year.

On July 22, Tempe’s Cheba Hut, part of a marijuana-themed sandwich chain, became one of the battlegrounds between the MPP and the other big group, Arizonans for Mindful Regulation.

Décor at the Tempe Cheba Hut includes a giant joint hanging from the ceiling that says “Home of the Blunts.” It’s the perfect spot for a legalization petition drive. For that day, Saucedo's group and another advocacy group, Arizonans for Safe Access, had advertised a Recreational Cannabis Legalization Volunteer and Signature Drive, promising the latest information about the campaign, signature-collection training, and a chance to “make history.”

The announcement on Facebook sparked an online feud between Saucedo and other activists led by Mickey Jones, a Tempe computer programmer.

“The MPP or Marijuana Policy Project initiative in Arizona is 99% about creating a government monopoly on growing and selling recreational marijuana for 80+ medical marijuana stores, and 1% about fixing the evil draconian marijuana laws,” Jones wrote on Saucedo's Facebook page on July 15. “If you are really interested in legalizing marijuana in Arizona, you should tell the folks from MPP or Marijuana Policy Project to f*ck off. They are the bad guys.”

In reply, Saucedo publicly scolded him: “How about you stop playing petty games and let people decide who they want to support?”

Jones put a screenshot of their exchange on Safer Arizona’s online forums criticizing Saucedo as overly sensitive. By doing so, he stirred up other commenters who blasted the student. She blocked Jones from her page but felt the sting of the online mob.

Then, on July 22, organizers for Arizonans for Mindful Regulation’s measure — though not Jones — went to Cheba Hut before the pro-MPP group’s scheduled appearance and heckled Saucedo and other MPP advocates when they arrived.

“[They were] yelling, ‘MPP is more dangerous than alcohol’” to about 20 MPP organizers and volunteers, Saucedo says.

Saucedo recalls one man who claimed to be a doctor getting in her face and scolding her, saying a couple of times: “Listen to me, little gal!”

She’s since heard that proponents of the alternate campaign are trying to create an online tool that tracks the pro-MPP group’s events “so they can crash them.”

Saucedo turned down a request from Jason Medar, Arizonans for Mindful Regulation’s leader, to attend her student legalization group’s meetings.

“I said, ‘No, you people are aggressive,’” she says.

Saucedo describes Medar’s campaign as “purposely trying to incite the stoner base.”

She feels that AZFMR members want too few limits on marijuana sales for the voting public to accept and have focused on the MPP’s initiative more than they’ve focused on MATFORCE, the Yavapai County organization led by Polk that put anti-pot billboards in the Phoenix area this year. Medar’s group has misled people about what the MPP initiative does, she says, by focusing on the idea that average marijuana users still could be charged with felonies for having too much pot or too many plants.

“It’s entirely unreasonable not to have limits,” she insists.

Saucedo says she believes in law and order and emphasizes that one goal of the MPP initiative is to shrink the black market.

This necessarily means continuing some restrictions on how marijuana can be sold.

The “stoners,” as she calls Medar’s group, prefer far fewer restrictions.

Or none at all.

The end of cannabis prohibition in Arizona may be near.

Long known for having some of the nation’s toughest anti-marijuana laws, Arizona still considers possession of any amount of marijuana (without a medical-registration card) — a seed, a grain, what have you — as a class-6 felony. Possession of paraphernalia to use marijuana also is a felony.

State law puts residents caught with a few grams of marijuana in the same category as people caught with two pounds of it. Besides getting booked into filthy, unsafe jails around the state, marijuana users can be marred by convictions that follow them around for years, limiting their housing and job opportunities. Minorities, national statistics show, are affected at significantly greater rates by marijuana prohibition than white people.

But in November 2016, when the next U.S. president will be elected, Arizona voters are all but certain to see at least one citizens’ initiative to legalize marijuana for personal use by adults and to allow the sale of it at state-regulated stores.

The MPP-backed campaign claims to have 65,000 signatures toward its goal of 230,000 by the July 2016 deadline, gathered by volunteers and paid workers. The well-funded campaign, supported by the national MPP, local dispensaries, and public donations, expects to hire paid petition gatherers to make the goal. The MPP has helped lead the nationwide legalization movement and has a track record of success, including the successful passage of the 2010 medical-marijuana law in Arizona and of the 2012 recreational-marijuana measure in Colorado.

Experts believe that if any group can get marijuana legalized in Arizona, it’s the MPP.

The issue has loomed large this year – it’s the most talked-about potential ballot initiative for 2016, and polls show that legalized marijuana is more popular among Arizona voters than, for example, U.S. Senator John McCain.

Most polls of Arizona voters show that legalization is possible, which is one reason the MPP has targeted the state for the campaign.

General support for outright legalization previously ranged from 36 percent to 60 percent. This year, a Rocky Mountain Poll showed that 53 percent of Arizonans favor legalization. Though a state Republican Party poll showed that 58 percent were opposed to legalization, with 31 percent in favor, the MPP noted that “independent polling” shows otherwise.

Momentum toward legal pot is increasing nationally, with petitions for adult-use legalization now being gathered in 12 other states for potential elections in 2016. In Ohio, a pro-legalization measure sponsored by would-be marijuana farmers (who intend to monopolize the market) will be on the ballot this November.

But supporters can’t forget that the 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act passed by the narrowest of margins, winning by only 4,341 votes out of 1.7 million ballots cast.

Arizona’s considered a purple state, with about 35 percent of voters registered as independent. But that’s a relatively recent switch from its solid red status. Maricopa County has elected Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio six times. State and local leaders mostly are Republican, and most of the state’s Democratic politicians are afraid to take a stand on the controversial legalization issue.

This all means that it could be another close vote in 2016.

Yet one of legalization’s biggest challenges is in-fighting among marijuana supporters.

The latest negative campaigning against the MPP effort actually is the second time this year that a pro-legalization group has upset the already-delicate chances of legalization. The first was a coalition of dispensaries that demanded they be given a leg up on would-be competitors in any newly formed system of retail marijuana stores.

Now, Arizonans for Mindful Regulation has persuaded Safer Arizona — formerly a backer of the MPP initiative — to adopt its cause. Its leader, Jason Medar, is a former Orange County, California, medical-marijuana dispensary owner who helped sink that state’s 2010 legalization initiative, Proposition 19. Medar claims he opposed the measure out of principle, not because he felt it was a threat to his businesses. Prop 19 failed 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent

Medar left his California dispensaries and apparently has no business ventures planned in Arizona. The AZFMR’s campaign doesn’t focus on commercial aspects of legalization.

It focuses on keeping pot users out of jail.

The group has its own multi-page initiative — and it’s similar to the MPP’s measure in that it ends prohibition.

But the AZFMR’s proposal goes further by calling for, among other things, a reduction in the penalty for the possession of eight ounces for sale from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Don’t mistake Medar’s campaign for less-serious measures that have been filed with the state with no chance of making the ballot, such as the proposed Re-Legalize All Drugs initiative.

Medar’s group claims to have gathered about 6,000 signatures so far.

But the AZFMR’s enthusiastic crowd lacks one very important thing: money. And it has to raise the same amount of signatures as the MPP.

Medar vows that if his group’s initiative fails to make the ballot, the campaign will use its resources to persuade voters to vote “no” on the MPP measure.

They hate it that much — even though it appears to be the best way to further their interests.

When MPP representatives sought information from the pro-cannabis community before sitting down last year to write the Arizona initiative, the public discovered that pro-legalization advocates weren’t a united front against prohibition.

How, precisely, this legalization was to occur was found to have serious sticking points. The first, and perhaps most important, group the MPP offended was a collection of politically minded medical-marijuana dispensary operators.

In a nasty public spat between Gina Berman, co-owner of a local dispensary, and Rob Kampia, national MPP executive director, the dispensaries broke off from the MPP, formed their own pro-legalization group, Arizonans for Responsible Legalization, and threatened to put their own initiative on the November 2016 ballot. Berman, an emergency-room physician and co-operator of the Giving Tree Wellness Center, with locations in North Phoenix and Mesa, led the breakaway group.

Kampia, in an e-mail leaked to the public, threatened “to launch a series of actions” to harm Berman’s business if she didn’t give up the effort. Kampia told her he was budgeting $10,000 “to pay people for 1,000 hours of time to distribute literature outside of your door, and the literature will not portray you in a kind way.” He added that he was “not joking.”

In a March 31 letter to Kampia released by ARL, Berman said the MPP had two major problems: It wanted an unlimited number of marijuana retails stores allowed under the initiative, and it wanted to grant citizens the liberty to grow a few plants of their own.

Capping the number of stores at just higher than the number of dispensaries already in Arizona is the only “politically feasible” approach, she wrote, and polling showed that Arizonans favor a limited, more-cautious approach to home-growing laws for medicinal users and might not support a “dramatic deregulation” on that issue. (The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act allows patients who live farther than 25 miles from an operating dispensary to have up to 12 plants for their own use, but when state rules on where dispensaries can be located are factored in, about 90 percent of populated Arizona is a no-grow zone for medical users.)

If Kampia followed through with the threats, Berman and Arizonans for Responsible Legalization might sue the MPP and inform the IRS about the nonprofit’s plan to spend donors’ money retaliating against her business, her letter states. Continued fighting wouldn’t be good for anyone, she noted.

“We hope to cooperate with you and work together, rather than escalating the tension between our two groups,” she concluded.

With dispensaries clearly ready to put their money behind their own measure, the idea of legalized marijuana next year looked dim.

Since April, though, the two groups have made up. The dispensaries dropped all plans for a separate initiative, and everyone involved in the spat is pushing the MPP initiative — which now includes a provision that existing medical-marijuana dispensaries get preference among candidates for marijuana sales licenses.

The number of total marijuana retailers was capped at 10 percent of the number of liquor store licenses, or about 150.

With 80-plus dispensaries currently open in Arizona, and most — if not all — likely to take the opportunity to get into the lucrative recreational-pot industry, existing dispensaries would control more than half of the cannabis retail stores allowed under the MPP’s measure.

The number of retail stores could be increased after 2021 by the new state agency that would be created to handle all things related to legal marijuana, the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control.

The MPP initiative-drafting group, for a time, considered the ARL’s demand to disallow personal marijuana growing. But even its consideration, along with the pro-business leanings of the MPP initiative, outraged some pro-cannabis activists.

Safer Arizona, which generally had been supportive of the MPP’s goal to legalize marijuana and which had coordinated an energetic but ultimately unsuccessful petition drive for its own legalization measure for the 2014 ballot, threw all its support behind Medar’s competing campaign.

The MPP decided eventually not to include in its measure a ban on home growing, considered a basic freedom by many pot activists.

Meanwhile, marijuana activist Mikel Weisser, in a leadership position at Safer Arizona, says he left the grassroots organization to volunteer for the MPP after he was asked to “switch over [to Medar’s group] or leave.” He later became the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws' (NORML) Arizona chapter.

“Now I’m part of the enemy MPP,” he says, grinning.

The language of the MPP measure was filed with the state, and an official campaign created to support it: the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona, which is led by Gina Berman, dispensary owner J.P. Holyoak, and Carlos Alfaro, the MPP’s political director in Arizona.

It grants Arizonans freedom to choose for themselves whether to legally use marijuana. Specifically, the MPP’s initiative would:

• Allow possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use with no penalties. People caught with between one ounce and 2.5 ounces would be guilty of a petty offense with a $300 fine. Arizona’s standard felony possession law (up to two pounds) would apply for amounts larger than 2.5 ounces. The limit on “concentrated marijuana” whether in the form of tinctures, cannabutter, hash oil, hashish, “shatter,” or “wax,” would be five grams.

• Allow residents to grow up to six plants for personal use and keep the marijuana from those plants at their residences (even if it’s more than 2.5 ounces) with no penalty, with a maximum of 12 plants per household. Growing the pot where it could be seen easily by the public could mean a small fine and forfeiture of the marijuana.

• Set up the aforementioned marijuana agency and fund it with a 15 percent tax to be levied on marijuana products (on top of state and local taxes) sold to the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Arizonans who already are occasional or regular users of marijuana. Of the money left over, which would be tens of millions dollar annually, 80 percent would go to school districts and all-day kindergarten programs and 20 percent would go to the state Department of Health Services.

• Keep felonies in place for large-scale marijuana crimes and the homemade making of concentrates with flammable solvents like butane. Businesses could still fire employees who fail a urine test for marijuana, and landlords and property owners could forbid marijuana use or cultivation on their property.

• Allow small amounts of marijuana to be given away freely to others but not sold or bartered.

• Forbid public consumption of marijuana; violations would be a petty offense punishable by a $300 fine. People under 21 who fake their ages to obtain marijuana could be punished with a petty offense, a $300 fine, and up to 24 hours of community service.

• Create a tiered system of licensed commercial marijuana growers and chefs.

Alfaro says he believes the initiative not only is politically tenable but has the support of most of the pro-cannabis community — groups like NORML, Arizonans for Safe Access, and Women Grow. The initiative was drafted over what Alfaro says was months of work at a “big, round table.” The result may not be perfect and some may not agree with certain points, he acknowledges, but the initiative would end the failure that is marijuana prohibition.

“Regular people” won’t be confused by Medar’s rival effort, he insists.

Yet the Arizonans for Mindful Regulation campaign has no incentive to clear up any confusion.

Registered voters who sign a petition for marijuana legalization might not realize they’ve signed the AZFMR petition, which could lead them to avoid signing the MPP’s petition. The initiatives contain similar language – both set up a new bureaucracy to manage a system of marijuana stores, and they maintain many of the current restrictions on black market sales.

The AZFMR plan has significant differences, though. It would:

• Make one ounce of marijuana legal to possess by all adults 21 and older and reduce the penalty for possession of eight ounces — even if police believe the marijuana was illegally sold to others — to a misdemeanor.

• Treat concentrates exactly the same as other marijuana, in terms of allowed weight.

• Allow adults to grow up to 12 plants each — with no household limit. Individuals growing up to 99 plants would be guilty only of a misdemeanor.

• Disallow cities and towns to prohibit home growing.

• Assess a 10 percent tax instead of the MPP’s 15 percent.

• Make smoking marijuana in public illegal but vaping in public legal.

• Not allow employers to prohibit employees from using marijuana during employees’ off-time.

• Allow unlimited cultivation licenses and up to 1,600 retail store licenses.

The AZFMR measure is so lenient that, if it passes, Colorado pot users might be tempted to move to Arizona.

Medar says he wishes that cannabis and its cultivation were regulated as strictly as tomatoes.

He’s sympathetic toward the Re-Legalize All Drugs initiative, which essentially would remove all marijuana laws from the books. But he’s neither a wild-eyed hippie nor a political novice. A former California dispensary owner and current web designer, Medar’s an intelligent, well-spoken proponent of legalization — if it’s done his way.

Joining other California dispensary owners, he campaigned against that state’s Proposition 19 in 2010, an adult-use legalization attempt that failed. But he says it wasn’t because of the greedy “I got mine” mentality that caused other dispensaries to lobby against Prop 19. Medar says Prop 19 was similar to the MPP’s Arizona effort in that small-time marijuana dealers and growers still could be charged with felonies.

“It did more harm than good,” he says of the failed California measure. “We were better off with the medical program, which is a free-for-all. Which I think is great.”

The AZFMR campaign has had as many as 100 volunteers, he says, and collects money from various donors, including local head shops. He says he’s been in talks with activist groups like his in five other states and that they’re thinking of forming a coalition. People tell him they like the AZFMR initiative, he says, “and that’s what really gives us the confidence to move forward.”

Born and raised in Sunnyslope, Medar moved back to Arizona in 2010 following passage of the medical-marijuana law here. He launched the Arizona Association of Dispensaries, which went defunct in 2012. That’s the same year he got arrested for illegal marijuana cultivation.

In a 2011 raid by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, he and two roommates were busted for growing 48 plants despite being allowed to grow only 36 under the medical-marijuana law. He had a gun in the house — and authorities found evidence that his 4-year-old son had been living there. He was charged with six felonies, including child abuse and misconduct with weapons. His son spent 64 days in protective custody before he was released to Medar’s grandfather. He didn’t get the boy back in his custody for a year and two months, he says.

Prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to one count of attempted production of marijuana, a class-6 felony. He received one year of probation and since has gotten the charge knocked down to a misdemeanor and his gun rights restored.

Under the MPP initiative, people like him “still would go to prison,” he says.

Medar says his group’s measure, unlike the MPP’s, defines precisely what a marijuana plant is — an important feature that prevents cops from abusing the law by claiming that a seedling is a whole plant.

Medar claims law enforcement fudged the number of plants using that method during the raid on his Phoenix-area home. And though the MPP’s campaign claims in its very name that it regulates marijuana as the state does alcohol, the limit on marijuana store licenses to 10 percent of liquor store licenses proves it doesn’t, he argues.

Police still would have an incentive “kick down doors,” he says, because growing a seventh plant, or possessing more than 2.5 ounces of weed not grown at home, still would be a felonies.

Since their split, Medar says, he’s still cordial with Alfaro. But AZFMR and its supporters are playing to win, he says. Either they win in 2016 or they try again in 2018.

If Medar’s initiative does appear on the ballot and voters approve both it and the MPP measure, the one with the most votes takes effect. But collecting enough signatures may be an insurmountable challenge for his group because it lacks financial resources.

Medar has a plan for that eventuality: If the AZFMR measure fails to make the ballot, his campaign will focus on getting Arizonans to vote “no” on the MPP plan.

“I’m very confident I can destroy the MPP’s initiative,” he brags.

Dave Wisniewski, director of Safer Arizona and a leading supporter of AZFMR, says he believes many people would still be arrested or raided under the MPP plan.

MPP organizers became “slaves to the highest bidder,” he says, referencing the deal with local dispensaries.

Wisniewski admits that he was busted for marijuana offenses — when he was 17 and twice when he was 18.

“A lot of activists have been through the system,” he says. “When you’ve had [stun grenades] thrown at your door, seen police in riot gear and with combat experience brought to your bedroom, it’s very emotionally traumatizing . . . I was locked in a cage with violent criminals.”

Mickey Jones, the Tempe computer programmer who sparred with Sarah Louise Saucedo, believes anything less than total marijuana freedom “allows the black market to thrive.” Prices of $300 or more for an ounce in Colorado and Washington are “exorbitant,” and combined with the limited number of stores allowed, make the scene ripe for underground sales, he says.

Driven by his desire to end prohibition, Jones dedicates some of his free time each week to circulating legalization petitions on street corners. The reception to legalization as an overall concept is fantastic, he says.

People practically “rip them out of your hands” to sign it and sometimes want their picture taken afterward, he says. He steers them toward the RAD proposal first, then shows them the AZFMR petition.

Despite what Medar and Jones claim, the MPP’s bill isn’t worse for marijuana users than Arizona’s current marijuana-prohibition scheme.

Statistics show that Phoenix police alone arrest an average of five people a day for small-time marijuana or marijuana-paraphernalia possession charges. Because of marijuana’s felony status, police typically book each suspect into jail. The cost to county taxpayers is about $285 for each booking, plus another $78 a day in jail costs if the suspect is incarcerated for more than one day.

Adding in arrests from other Valley cities, more than 3,000 felony marijuana cases are generated each year — nearly 10 percent of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office’s 35,000 yearly felony submittals.

Elimination of Arizona’s felony status for minor marijuana offenses immediately would save the county more than $1 million annually in booking and jail costs, plus an untold number of hours that police and detention staff spend dealing with these low-level offenders.

But Mitch Morrissey, Denver’s district attorney, tells a different story about legalization in his state. Morrissey believes Colorado’s 2012 legalization law is causing rampant problems. He submits a litany of complaints: Marijuana DUIs are up, the black market is thriving, Colorado weed is getting transported illegally to other states, and kids and pets have been taken to emergency rooms with signs of unintentional marijuana intoxication.

One of the biggest drawbacks he mentions is that while personal-use possession tickets are way down since legalization, public consumption is way up. Police are confiscating more marijuana than ever, which negates the argument that officials are saving time because of legalization, he maintains.

However, Colorado laws weren’t like Arizona’s before 2012 — possession was a ticketable offense that didn’t result in an arrest.

A much-touted benefit of regulated, legal marijuana sales would be the new source of tax revenue. Arizona’s medical-marijuana sales are subject to a 5.6 percent sales tax, plus city and county sales taxes.

Last year, it brought in an estimated $10 million in tax revenue based on about $110 million in total revenue from the state’s dispensaries. MPP supporters announced at the state Capitol last month that their measure would raise about $40 million annually for schools. An independent estimate released on August 31 by the nonpartisan Grand Canyon Institute estimated the MPP’s measure would generate $72 million annually for schools and for the DHS beginning in 2019.

While estimates in Colorado of the tax windfall for legal marijuana fell short last year, the state’s Department of Revenue tells New Times that collections have increased dramatically this year, already surpassing last year’s totals.

At this pace, legal marijuana may bring in more than $30 million for Colorado’s schools — by taxing people for something they previously bought on the black market.

The Giving Tree Wellness Center near Seventh Avenue and Loop 101 looks from the outside like any medical office or boutique retail shop.

It’s the culmination of Dr. Gina Berman’s longtime dream to own a business. She’d had in mind a quasi-medical studio that focused on yoga, massage, and non-traditional healing techniques. But after 2010, she and her partner decided to get into the medical-marijuana business, seeing it as a fun, rewarding opportunity.

Critics like Medar claim that the MPP initiative is more about money than about freedom for marijuana users, and Berman seems to be a case in point. She doesn’t use marijuana herself. She’s tried it a couple of times, she says, but “I just don’t care for it.” She has no problem with others using it, naturally.

Berman supported the concept of adult-use legalization as a way to expand the business and allow other people into the industry.

But she felt compelled to battle with the MPP after its national director, Kampia, asked dispensaries to help fund its campaign, Berman says. She and other dispensary owners realized they needed to take a stronger stance on what the initiative would say — or watch their medical-marijuana businesses get swallowed up by hundreds of competitors.

“We said, if you’re asking us to pay, don’t give us something that will bury a business I worked two and a half years for,” she says. “I think Rob [Kampia] is a great strategist. There was nothing personal about it.”

After her fight with Kampia, which resulted in the MPP initiative’s sweet deal for dispensaries — giving them a years-long head start against most competitors — Berman and her partner now stand to make a fortune on legal marijuana.

But it’s going to be a long campaign.

Before they can reap their spoils, Berman and others pushing the MPP proposal must push back against prohibitionists like Sheila Polk, and win the fight with AZFMR and its zealous followers, either by marginalizing them or by absorbing them to the MPP cause.

Correction: The student activist's full name is Sarah Louise Saucdeo 
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.