Three Democrats said they would stop charging marijuana possession cases if they won the 2020 election for Maricopa County Attorney, a powerful office that handles prosecutions for the largest court jurisdiction in Arizona.
Criminal defense attorneys Ryan Tait and Robert McWhirter, along with business lawyer Julie Gunnigle, are all running as reformers for the office currently held by Republican Bill Montgomery, a prosecutor known for his vocal opposition to the liberalization of American marijuana policies.
No Republicans candidates have yet declared their intention to run for the four-year county attorney position. That's likely due in part to Montgomery's pending application for a vacancy on the Arizona Supreme Court, which Governor Doug Ducey is expected to fill this summer.
Montgomery did not respond to request for comment.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office filed charges for marijuana possession roughly 5,000 times a year in 2015 and 2016, accounting for roughly 15 percent of all drug offenses in Maricopa County, according to the last annual reports for which the relevant data is available.
Possession of any amount of marijuana in Arizona is a felony, and offenders face between one and two and a half years in prison, according to state law. The felony cases are typically bumped down to a misdemeanor or adjudicated in a deferred prosecution.
In phone interviews, all three Democratic candidates for Maricopa County Attorney pledged to end prosecutions for pot possession, agreeing that public resources would be better spent on more serious crimes. The candidates, however, emphasized different reasons for their shared position.
Tait — the first declared candidate for Montgomery's seat — only recently promised to effectively decriminalize pot in Maricopa County. When Phoenix New Times contacted him in April, Tait said he would handle most marijuana possession charges as misdemeanors, rather than felonies.
He took the full plunge to decriminalization, he said, after doing additional research that helped him conclude "the harm associated with marijuana just hasn't been established sufficiently to warrant an all-out criminal conviction."
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Tait emphasized that legal substances, like cigarettes and alcohol, pose more health risks than pot.
In addition to halting prosecutions for cannabis possession, Tait said he would no longer consider such a charge as a sentencing enhancer. He also promised to conduct a review of cases in which people are currently serving prison or probation time for pot possession with the goal of having their sentences vacated.
Tait served in Montgomery's office as a prosecutor for six years years before leaving his government job to work in criminal defense. A graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, Tait co-founded the private firm Tait & Hall in 2015.
Former financial crimes prosecutor Gunnigle — who filed her candidacy for county attorney in May — told New Times that she supports decriminalizing marijuana because enforcement disproportionately affects "low-income" communities, and the nationwide trend is toward a more liberal approach to pot. Gunnigle also said that pursuing such charges places a burden on the criminal justice system.
"It costs us an obscene amount of money to go after marijuana possession," she said.
Gunnigle, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame School of Law, prosecuted financial crimes and public corruption in Cook County, Illinois, from 2009 to 2011 before returning to her home state of Arizona to teach law and launch a solo business law practice.
In 2018, she ran as a Democrat for an Arizona House seat in Legislative District 15, coming in fourth in the November general election.
McWhirter, who became the newest declared candidate on Wednesday, used the most colorful language to explain his position on pot possession.
"I know Montgomery and [Yavapai County Attorney] Sheila Polk have made big statements about how marijuana is a dangerous drug and blah blah blah," McWhirter said. "Yeah there are problems with marijuana, but compared to alcohol, it's small potatoes."
McWhirter emphasized that black people are far more likely to be convicted of marijuana possession, despite using the drug at similar rates as white people.
"This is a problem that just perpetuates racial disparities, and it's just untenable," he said.
Both Gunnigle and McWhirter said they agreed with Tait on his pledges to stop considering marijuana possession as a sentencing enhancer and to review cases with the goal of vacating sentences.
The end of pot possession prosecutions would likely deal a financial blow to Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC), a private firm that maintains a contract with Maricopa County to provide drug treatment services for offenders who elect to enter a diversion program to avoid a felony conviction.
TASC is the subject of a federal lawsuit from a civil rights group that claims the program's hefty fees perpetuate a "two-tiered legal system" in which wealthy pot offenders skate around the criminal justice system, while low-income individuals who struggle to pay up to $1,300 get slapped with life-altering convictions.
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Maricopa County also receives a cut of roughly $1 million of revenue from the program annually.
All three candidates acknowledged that decriminalizing pot would result in less revenue for the county attorney's office from TASC.
"I don't think that would be the worst thing in the world,"
Gunnigle said. "I don't think TASC is affordable for those who need it most."
"It's just bad policy," said McWhirter.