AZFMR in Turmoil After Halting Marijuana-Legalization Drive

Stacey Theis spent untold hours in recent months tooling across Arizona in her bright-green CannaBus, talking to voters and collecting signatures for a grassroots marijuana-legalization campaign.

After Wednesday's announcement by the group, Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, that it was halting its 2016 petition drive a month before the state's July 7 deadline to hand in signatures, Theis and other volunteers wanted to keep working toward their goal. AZFMR's website claims that more than 114,000 signatures have been gathered, and Theis believes it's possible to collect and turn in the 150,652 valid signatures needed to make the ballot.

To do that, they need the cooperation of AZFMR's leadership — but they apparently aren't going to get it. Jason Medar, the group's leader and one of three principals of the state-registered political action committee, told New Times on Thursday that AZFMR won't give the volunteers the petitions it has gathered so far. He also discussed how he called off the signature drive in part because of slow signature collections, but also in order to focus on a campaign to derail another planned marijuana-legalization ballot initiative backed by dispensaries and the national Marijuana Policy Project.

"They are not taking over the campaign," Medar said of the volunteers. "If we break the law, that falls on me, not Stacey."

"He's full of shit," Theis spat when informed of Medar's position. "This is some kind of vicious game!"

Later, Theis had a terse, late-night Facebook conversation with Medar, which she posted on social media this morning.

The group has been a loud force for change within the state's cannabis community for more than a year now, its impassioned volunteers taking a strident, uncompromising stance toward those who would settle for an incremental approach to legalization. Along with Safer Arizona, its primary front-group led by activist David Wisniewski, AZFMR banished more mainstream advocates from its ranks, including Mikel Weisser, state director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; and Kathy Inman, chair of MomForceAZ. AZFMR's legalization measure aimed to repeal Arizona's felony prohibition law, allow more-permissive possession limits, and it would grant licenses to more than 1,500 retail cannabis shops.

Now, though, the group's divisive spirit has turned inward, with Theis becoming a de facto leader for volunteers who don't agree with AZFMR leadership.

Many in the community were caught off guard by Medar's Wednesday announcement, which was posted on AZFMR's website just prior to a scheduled meeting of the Phoenix Cannabis Coalition. At the meeting, Medar gave a speech about his decision that left Theis and others "dissatisfied," said Theis, a PCC board member.

"People are sacrificing a lot of money — it's a lot of time and effort and commitment," she said on Thursday afternoon. "Myself and other members of the Phoenix Cannabis Coalition have pretty much taken over the role to keep the administration going."

Theis called the Arizona Secretary of State's Office and was told it would be easy to take over leadership, she said — all it would take is for AZFMR to file for a change in leadership that puts the volunteers in charge. The volunteers want to donate thousands of dollars to print up new petitions on which to gather signatures. Theis can call on several notaries to approve the petitions. She said she was trying to find out from Medar "if the current petitions are still safe and secure, or if we need to come and pick them up."

By evening, however, Medar and AZFMR board members Jason Hein and Alexander Wick retained control of AZFMR's administration and would not let the volunteers override their decision.

"To be clear: They're not taking over the campaign," Medar told New Times.

The 114,000-plus petitions haven't yet been gathered in one place, he added. They're scattered all over the state, in the hands of volunteers. Collecting them would be a large, expensive chore. For instance, he said, more than 1,000 petitions that were collected in western Arizona are still in Yuma.

AZFMR leadership canceled the signature drive because the "math" indicated that collections had slowed to a trickle in recent weeks. The volunteer effort was declining. And the group is out of money, with "no contributions coming in," he said. Gathering petitions isn't cheap, even without investing in paid signature gatherers. Each petition is several pages pages long and only accommodates 15 signatures; Medar says they cost $1.38 apiece to print.

Another issue was the June 1 state deadline to register AZFMR's effort to oppose the rival legalization campaign. Medar said he had to terminate the 2016 ballot initiative in order to run the new "vote no" drive.

The measure Medar opposes is all but assured to be on the November ballot. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona would legalize possession of personal amounts of marijuana products and live plants for adults 21 and older, and its retail system would begin with only about 150 shops — far fewer than the roughly 900 in Colorado.

Medar said the new campaign would soon release a list of reasons they oppose the CRMLA. A former California dispensary owner, he was a key figure in shooting down that state's 2012 legalization initiative.
He believes most volunteers will stick with the group through the "vote no" phase and on into November, when the group plans to launch a 2018 legalization campaign.

Medar might not be able to count on volunteers like Theis two years from now, though.

"Something very dirty is going on," Theis told New Times. "They are fighting us now, and that doesn't make sense if they want to free this plant."

She said Medar had claimed the gathered petitions were in a vault somewhere, and "now he's being flaky" with his statements about petitions all over the state.

Their relationship deteriorated after New Times spoke to the two on Thursday.

"WE WILL GET THE PETITIONS," Theis wrote to Medar on Facebook at 9:41 p.m. "I personally do not understand what it is YOU are missing in this conversation given the fact I know you are a smart man! Your lack of honest cooperation tells me you all are probably no better or no more honest than our oppressors and I do not understand why or how you could be this way."

A few minutes later, Medar replied. "I don't have time for anymore of this bizarre circle-jerk," he countered. "I've got to go to tend to more important things. Bye Stacey."