Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
The case of Andre Maestas, a student at Arizona State University and a medical marijuana card holder, is a prime example of what’s wrong with Arizona’s drug enforcement policies and our conflicting laws.
Marijuana prohibition zealot and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery filed felony marijuana possession charges against Maestas because he had 0.6 grams of marijuana and smoking paraphernalia in his dorm room. (0.6 grams is approximately a teaspoon of pot.)
How could a medical marijuana patient be charged with felony possession– especially for such a tiny amount? Patients are allowed to possess and purchase up to 2.5 ounces of pot every two weeks. Maestas had 0.02 ounces. (Did I mention that Maestas is black?)
Apparently, Maestas was charged and found guilty under a 2012 law passed by the Arizona Legislature (and backed by the universities) which bans medical pot on college campuses. Maestas’ case claims the 2012 law– which changes the 2010 voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act– is illegal because of the 1998 voter-approved Voter Protection Act, which prohibits the Legislature from changing or over-turning citizen initiatives. (The Voter Protection Act was passed two years after Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed medical marijuana the first time.) So far– the courts are not buying Maestas’ argument, and he is scheduled to be sentenced in early October. What’s wrong with this picture?
There’s a lot wrong with this picture– besides the outlandish response by the Maricopa County Attorney and the ASU campus police to some flakes of pot in the bottom of a baggie in a dorm room.
Like many of the 80,000+ Arizonans who have medical marijuana cards, Maestas uses pot for pain relief. What would be his alternative if he wanted to live legally in the dorm and still control his pain? Prescription analgesics– like Oxycontin. It is legal for him to possess and use deadly and highly addictive prescription pain killers but illegal to use a plant that has never killed anyone.
Arizona has one of the highest death rates in the country from prescription drug abuse. Since 2010, drug overdose deaths–from legal and illegal drugs– have surpassed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in Arizona. In fact, a national report said that Arizona is among nine states with the fewest “promising strategies” to combat prescription drug abuse.
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), more Arizonans die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. In 2013, ADHS reported 100 deaths from heroin vs 1000 from prescription drugs (and 0 deaths from marijuana).
In October 2014, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a study that said states with medical cannabis had a 25% lower overdose mortality rate from opioid prescription drug abuse when compared with states where marijuana is illegal. They also found that the longer states had medical marijuana, the greater the decrease in deaths from prescription drug abuse. In June 2015, JAMA released another study outlining the medical uses of marijuana.
Not only is Arizona one of nine states with the fewest “promising strategies” to combat prescription drug abuse, we are marching backwards with this wrong-headed campus prohibition law enacted by the Arizona Legislature. The 2012 law that makes medical marijuana illegal on college campuses should be repealed: 1) because it was illegal based upon the Voter Protection Act and 2) because pot is a safe alternative to highly addictive prescription pain killers.
It has been five years since Arizonans passed medical marijuana in 2010; distribution of cards started several months later– thanks to stalling and political maneuvers by former Governor Jan Brewer and then Attorney General Tom Horne. Once we have passed the five-year mark on actual sale of medical marijuana, I want to see research data showing how that law has impacted Arizona’s death rate from prescription drug abuse.
We need more research, not more arrests. Law enforcement should focus on drugs that actually kill people. And, dare I say, the research universities should check out the research when making policy.