Zonka Bar Bust: Arizona's Anti-Pot Zealots Throw Medical-Marijuana Entrepreneurs in Jail

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. Assuming it wasn't adulterated with anything but marijuana, the Zonka Bar was less harmful than a four-pack of wine coolers.

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

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

Instead, these entrepreneurs are facing multiple felony charges and the possiblity of years in prison.

See Also: Tom Horne and Bill Montgomery Make Their Move to Nix Arizona's Medical Marijuana Law

See Also: Allan Sobol: Arizona's Medical-Pot Martyr?

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 law enforcement officials could be taking a different approach to this very political issue. They could exercise 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. Not in this case, though.

The new and old laws are creating unjust and drastic differences in the way law enforcement deals with marijuana. It's like if lengthy prison sentence were threatened for selling alcohol without a license or carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, (before the new law that says you don't even need a permit to carry a concealed weapon).

For the most part, police are alleging that Martin and his associates sold a product labeled as medical marijuana to various compassion clubs, which sold them to medical-marijuana patients.

Without doubt, this has something do with the burgeoning medical-marijuana industry authorized by the 2010 law. 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 and expensive investigation into Zonka bars. A September 17 news release from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office about the bust is entitled: "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, Todd James, 40, and Christopher Goodrich, 39, both of Phoenix. Other people may be arrested or charged as the investigation continues, cops say.

Raids took place on September 12 and 13 at:

* A commercial kitchen at 1732 West Bell in Phoenix

* The Joint ReLeaf Compassion Club, 3143 East Roosevelt; AZ CPC, 1833 East Indian School Road; and Green Cross, 1000 East Indian School Road, and the home of Todd James, all in Phoenix.

* And in Prescott, 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 candies 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 allege.

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. They've been advertising on the Internet since April. Their website still was up today, 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.

The site also links to info on Zonka's "rep program," stating that:

I put together a SAMPLE PACKAGE, with either pre-ordered or already assembled standard menu items. The KIT will include marketing materials to help spread the word about our Zonka Bars Brand. We will have a confidentiality waiver included and a free tee shirt as our gift to you for being a Zonka Bars Brand Rep. You must have your MMA Green Card in order to participate.

Such indiscretion has consequences, clearly.

Martin and the others are not just charged with selling pot -- they're charged with selling a "narcotic." As New Times pointed out in an April blog post, 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 the Zonka folks were operating outside of the 2010 law, and therefore the harsh "narcotics" designation applies.

Jack Fields, chief of the civil division for 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 yet exist. Patients can exchange marijuana between 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 nothing in the 2010 law allows for the compassion-clubs model, which theoretically give marijuana to dues-paying club members for free, as explained in several New Times articles.

And although all of the 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 admits his boss, Yavapai 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-weed activists. Last month, she even stooped to putting out false propaganda about the Arizona U.S. Attorney's supposed plan to shut down dispensaries if they ever open. Her bad info was subsequently picked up and repeated by Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher.

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

The affiliate didn't want to give his name, but 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."

The Green Cross operator admits that Martin's criminal record wasn't spotless. Fields also confirms that Martin has been busted previously for growing marijuana. A check of court records turned up a 1996 arrest for criminal damage and assaulting a peace officer; the disposition of the case isn't given.

Martin also is president of the Desert Eagles Motorcycle Club, though it's unclear if that means he's some sort of motorcycle gang member. The Green Cross guy says the club organizes group rides to benefit charity organizations. Fields says the club is affiliated with the Hells Angels.

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

He just got busy too early.

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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.