One Thursday afternoon in June 2015, Kyle Haugen and his fiancée were heading west on the Interstate 10 in central Phoenix when their yellow 2003 Dodge Neon broke down. It had given out near the median, and before long, a state trooper on a motorcycle pulled up to see what was going on.
At first, he offered the couple assistance. But when, as he claimed later in his report, he "could smell the odor of marijuana emitting from inside the driver's compartment," he made the couple get out of the car and answer some questions.
Eventually, the trooper found roughly 3.5 ounces of weed in a backpack in the trunk, according to an incident report from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Haugen also had about $55 worth of concentrates on him.
According to the trooper, Haugen fessed up to everything. He said he didn't have a medical marijuana card, and said he bought the weed from his cousin, who got it from a dispensary. His fiancée said the weed was hers, too. The trooper said he informed the couple that charges would be submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Haugen told Phoenix New Times the opposite. Haugen said he thought everything was fine, since the officer still called a tow truck for the couple and never gave him a ticket or citation of any kind. Haugen claims he had a medical marijuana card at the time, and said he told the officer that. He said he purchased the weed from a dispensary and he owned it legally, but could not provide proof to New Times that he was a cardholder at the time of his arrest.
So according to Haugen, it came as a surprise when he and his pregnant fiancée got a letter from the county attorney's office in the mail stating that they would be prosecuted for a felony unless they enrolled in the Treatment Assessment Screening Center's (TASC) drug diversion program. The private company contracts with the prosecutor's office to provide the expensive program to accused offenders, and the office rakes in a portion of the profits.
Surprise or not, Haugen had no intention of quitting marijuana because of his chronic back problems. By the time Haugen began TASC's drug diversion program seven months later, he was a medical marijuana cardholder. And he was allowed to smoke pot the whole time he was in the program. Haugen showed New Times his current medical marijuana card and emails between himself and TASC employees showing that he had the card when he began the TASC program.
Haugen and his fiancée subsequently spent a year and roughly $10,000 enrolled in MCAO's drug diversion program (TASC), all while legally using the exact drug he was there to be "treated" for. His experience highlights the absurdity of Arizona's marijuana laws and raises questions about the purpose of TASC, a program that is currently the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit for its allegedly unconstitutional practices.
Both TASC and former county attorney Bill Montgomery, now one of seven state Supreme Court justices, are named in the lawsuit. It was filed by Civil Rights Corp in August 2018, alleging that the diversion program is being used as a money-making scheme that extorts the poor by threatening them with felony prosecution.
"In principle, the programs are 'intended to relieve overburdened courts and crowded jails, and to spare low-risk offenders from the devastating consequences of a criminal record,'" the lawsuit states. "But in Maricopa County, it continues, they serve another purpose: to make money for those who operate the program, including the MCAO."
"Between 2006 and 2016, MCAO collected nearly $15 million in revenue by diverting threatened prosecutions to TASC," giving TASC and Montgomery's office "a financial incentive to enforce the policies this way — and to use the specter of termination and felony prosecution to coerce as much money from participants as they can."
Possession of any amount of marijuana without a medical card is a low-level Class Six felony in Arizona, but possession of concentrated marijuana (considered a "narcotic" under state law) is an even harsher Class Four felony. To Haugen, the threat of being prosecuted with such a severe crime was such a terrifying prospect that he went straight to the TASC office just days after receiving a letter from the county attorney's office, without ever getting a day in court to discuss his case.
On February 2, 2016, Deputy County Attorney John Tutelman sent Haugen a letter stating that he had two options. He could be prosecuted for the Class Four felony, which carried a maximum sentence of 3.75 years in prison and a $150,000 fine; or, he could complete the TASC drug diversion program, and no criminal charges would be filed.
If Haugen selected option two, the letter warned, he would have to call or email TASC no later than February 23 to schedule an appointment.
The letter paralyzed Haugen. He had gotten in trouble for selling marijuana nearly a decade ago, was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation, and had tried to stay out of trouble ever since. He had found a steady job, he and his fiancée were going to have a baby, and they planned to get married in Colorado in October. For Haugen, the stakes felt very high.
"I didn't want to get back on the wrong side of the law," Haugen told New Times. So he showed up to the TASC facility on North Seventh Street in person. "I asked a secretary at the front where to go; she told me to check with a woman in the back. That woman started reading me my Miranda rights; she's a sworn deputy, and I'm freaking out. My wife is four months pregnant, and I think I'm going to jail."
"I'm like, 'What's going on here?' She says, 'Oh no, you're not going to jail, you're just getting admitted to this self-help program because you don't want to be prosecuted for your charges,'" Haugen recalled.
Haugen's enrollment in the TASC program began that day, though he regrets not contacting a lawyer ahead of time or ever appearing in court to contest the charges.
Haugen and his fiancée were both forced into a yearlong narcotic drug diversion program.
For that year, Haugen and his fiancée could not leave the state, meaning they had to postpone their wedding. They had to complete 48 hourlong Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (though neither of them were in the program for alcohol). They went through once-a-week, hourlong substance abuse group counseling classes for 36 weeks.
The fees added up quickly. They each had to pay the $150 TASC enrollment fee, a $1,285 TASC one-year program fee, and a $1,500 assessment fee. They each had to pay $15 every time they had to take a urine test, which could happen multiple times a week. And every class they took cost them each at least $20.
"It was close to $11,000 by the time we finished the program," Haugen said. "On top of that, we had a kid on the way. Now [my wife's] pregnant and having to go through TASC and the AA meetings and the substance abuse counseling for my marijuana. That's embarrassing for her — it makes it look like she's gonna need CPS at our house all the time."
The couple had only one car, and it was difficult to straddle their two jobs at opposite ends of the day, deal with prenatal appointments, and calling in every day to find out whether they'd need to drop everything to take a urine test that day.
"It was humiliating. It's dehumanizing, to have someone watch you pee into a cup," Haugen said. "They make you pull your pants down to your knees. They make you pick up your shirt and hold it with your chest. So you're fully exposed from your abdomen down to your knees. They tell you don't pick up your pants or put your shirt down until you wash your hands. And then you got this guy watching you the whole time."
Haugen did all of this, despite the fact that he was allowed to smoke weed the entire time.
Emails between Haugen and TASC employees shared with New Times show that Haugen informed TASC he was a medical marijuana cardholder prior to beginning the program. Kristen Gambill, a diversion program coordinator for TASC, told Haugen he'd need to submit his medical card and doctor's note for approval to smoke weed while on the weed diversion program from the County Attorney's Office.
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She also said he'd need to sign a contract, which Haugen described as forbidding him from speaking about the fact that he was still allowed to use marijuana to anyone else in the program, though he no longer had a copy of that document.
Neither Gambill nor TASC CEO Douglas Kramer, who tax filings show he made $308,720 in 2017, responded to emails from New Times asking what the point is of enrolling someone into a marijuana diversion program in which they can use marijuana the whole time.
"This was not a joyful time in our lives," Haugen said. "It was really stressful to know that one slip up, one missed urine test in six months would be all it takes to put you back to the beginning, like it's all for nothing.
"I didn't have any kind of due process or any kind of lawyer to explain to me what's going on with this," he continued. "There was no public defender. It's just mind-boggling. It seemed really unjust."