Soaring Highs and Bad Trips: Top 10 Arizona Marijuana News Stories in 2018

2018 had a few downers, but overall it was a pretty good year for legal medical marijuana in Arizona.
It was another year for the history books in the Arizona medical-marijuana community, full of ever-growing highs and only a few bummers.

Nearly 184,000 Arizonans were active cardholders in 2018 as of last month, according to the state's Department of Health Services —  a big jump over January's number of 157,000. Sales of marijuana increased steadily throughout the year, too, going from slightly more than 8,000 pounds a month in early 2018 to nearly 12,000 pounds in November.

Yet this growth has been tempered by the ominous news that it could end rather suddenly. If the Arizona Supreme Court upholds an appellate court ruling that makes cannabis concentrates illegal, dispensaries would lose a significant source of revenue, and some of the most ill patients in the system would be denied the only form of medicine that helps them.

Of course, the concentrates kerfuffle wasn't the only big marijuana gossip in 2018. Here's our list of the top cannabis stories that had the attention of industry moguls and patients last year:

The Question of Concentrates

In March, Phoenix New Times informed readers that the legal question of concentrates was unsettled, and that the state Court of Appeals was reviewing the 2015 felony conviction of medical-marijuana cardholder Rodney Jones for about a gram of hashish, an extract of the cannabis plant. The bombshell news came in June, (reported first in the news media by New Times): The appeals court had ruled 2-1 against cannabis concentrates, the main ingredient in popular products like vape cartridges, edibles, and topicals.

Patients and cannabis business people have been on edge ever since, wondering if the seven-member Arizona Supreme Court would back them or the two appellate judges. Industry leaders and advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union have filed pro-concentrate briefs with the court, and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich withdrew his opposition to the High Court's taking up of the case in what seemed like a strategic pre-election move. But the state Supreme Court had not answered as of late December, leaving the industry in limbo.

Obama-Era Protections Rescinded

The other bad trip of 2018 for the cannabis industry that still hasn't ended: In January, Trump's former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, rescinded the protections by the Department of Justice under Obama that basically told the feds to keep their hands off marijuana consumers, growers, and sellers who were complying with their states' laws. The move seemed at odds with the states-rights stance of Trump, but in theory makes it easier for federal law-enforcement authorities to bust dispensary operators and patients.

Another obstacle to federal enforcement remained, however — the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment. The amendment, named after Democratic congressmen from California and Oregon, stops the government from spending money on enforcement actions against businesses or state employees who stay within the guidelines of their state's laws. Only problem there — the amendment needs to be periodically renewed. Congress extended it in January, May, and September. What happens in 2019 is anyone's guess. But at least Sessions, finally fired by Trump, won't be setting the agenda.

click to enlarge Jeff Sessions started the year by spooking the cannabis industry, but when 2018 was over, he didn't have a job and cannabis or medical marijuana was still legal in most states. - RAY STERN
Jeff Sessions started the year by spooking the cannabis industry, but when 2018 was over, he didn't have a job and cannabis or medical marijuana was still legal in most states.
Ray Stern
Cannabis Testing Bill Dies

Mold and pesticide infect Arizona marijuana plants on a regular basis. Revolting, right? You can thank lawmakers and industry leaders who failed to pass a law this year that protects patients from such contaminants.

The medical-marijuana law that voters approved in 2010 and was written by the Marijuana Policy Project didn't contain any contaminant standards, mandatory testing, or government oversight of the cleanliness of the product. Patients and even some Republican lawmakers want change. But dispensaries wanted a quid pro quo — lower card fees. All the squabbling resulted in gridlock and another year of the status quo.

Safer Arizona Fails to Qualify for the Ballot

Nobody was all that shocked when Safer Arizona, a grassroots pro-cannabis movement, failed to turn in anywhere near enough signatures in July to put its adult-use legalization measure on the 2018 ballot. It's a Herculean task to convince 200,000 people to sign a petition, for sure, and the group's members are as money-poor as they are enthusiastic about the possibility of legal pot in Arizona.

Yet Safer Arizona's proposed law probably stood a better-than-average chance of rejection by voters. It was like a perma-baked dropout's dream, calling for a total repeal of current marijuana laws, possession by individuals of an unlimited amount of marijuana, and essentially unlimited, government-free cannabis cultivation in any neighborhood.

Fox 10 Anchor Kari Lake's Conspiracy Theory

No, #RedforEd was not a conspiracy to legalize marijuana in Arizona, Kari. Duh.

A New Times article on Lake's dopiness rode a large wave of attention by cannabis-savvy readers across the country, becoming one of our top 10 click-getting articles in 2018.

State Slapped by High Court Over Campus Ban

When 19-year-old Arizona State University student Andre Maestas got himself busted for a minuscule amount of marijuana in his dorm room in 2015, he could never have imagined the case would turn into a headline-making, years-long fight with the state — and one from which he would emerge victorious. But that's just what happened.

This year, following a positive ruling by the state Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court ruled on May 23 that state lawmakers screwed up when they passed a law making medical marijuana illegal on Arizona college campuses. The justices backed advocates of the 2010 medical-marijuana law and 1998 Voter Protection Act who said that lawmakers had overstepped their authority.

Phoenix Rejects Outlandish Pot-Tax Proposal

Mesa firefighter and union boss Bryan Jeffries wanted to see the city fund the Phoenix fire and police departments better, so he came up with a plan to tax the living daylights out of dispensaries. The city hired him as an aide to Interim Phoenix Mayor Thelda Williams in part to ready the proposal for a city council vote — but everyone kept quiet about the idea until a few days before a vote, perhaps hoping to get it passed without anyone noticing.

New Times' writer Joe Flaherty played spoiler by publishing an article about it, adding to the pressure already building against the city from patients and industry reps. The city council then killed the tax.

Arizona Watches as Other States and Canada Legalize Rec

Arizonans failed to approve an adult-use measure on the ballot in 2016, but residents couldn't help but noticing the cannabis-legalization world kept turning without them. This year was a particularly banner year for legal weed.

In January, Vermont became the first state to pass an adult-use law through its legislature, and California legal marijuana sales to adults began statewide. Of four states with marijuana on the ballot in November, voters in three states approved: Michigan voted for an adult-use program, and Utah and Missouri each voted for medical-marijuana laws. North Dakota rejected a legalization initiative, though, and conservative lawmakers in Utah subsequently gutted their new law. But those setbacks appear to be overwhelmed by legalization in Canada, talk of legalization in Mexico, and the exponential growth of the U.S industry.

Companies Join, Fortunes Earned

click to enlarge Steve White, CEO of Harvest of Arizona - COURTESY OF STEVE WHITE
Steve White, CEO of Harvest of Arizona
Courtesy of Steve White
Even with medical marijuana only, and even with the threat of a ban on concentrates, the Arizona industry keeps expanding and evolving like the ultimate Sea of Green. This year saw several high-level mergers and acquisitions of legal cannabis businesses.

Noteworthy local examples include: Curaleaf Holdings, headquartered in Massachusetts, took over Midtown Roots in downtown Phoenix, its fifth dispensary acquisition in the Phoenix area. In October, MedMen of Los Angeles announced the acquisition of Monarch Wellness Center in Scottsdale and a large growing facility in Mesa. Harvest of Arizona announced in September that it had acquired 10 dispensary licenses in Arizona alone, and was operating businesses in 10 states. Who's going to win the race for biggest Arizona marijuana company?

Hemp in Arizona Gets Huge Boost From National Law

The year ended on a high note indeed for the cannabis industry when President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. If you like CBD, you're going to see a lot more of it in the coming years.

Arizona is poised to become a significant supplier of hemp. In May, Governor Doug Ducey signed an Arizona hemp bill into law that was predicated on the feds making hemp legal. Now, officials are preparing to accelerate the timeline for putting seeds into the ground from August to May. In sunny Arizona, where water is cheap, the harvests are expected to be spectacular.

Barring a catastrophic ruling on concentrates from the state Supreme Court, 2019 stands to be the greenest year ever for Arizona marijuana.