Case is first test of Arizona's medical marijuana law

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX -- The first real test for Arizona’s medical marijuana law began in Maricopa County Superior Court, Friday, with arguments between the Maricopa County attorney and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The spark for this case was provided by a businessman who is trying to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Sun City. The White Mountain Health Center filed a lawsuit against Maricopa County after it refused to provide documentation and information required in order to obtain a dispensary permit under the voter approved 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.

“This has been an issue that I've been willing to fight for because it is a true medicine and I think the people in Sun City would benefit from that medicine,” said Butch Williams, of the White Mountain Health Center.

Williams is the first to apply for a dispensary permit under Maricopa County jurisdiction (nearly a dozen others have applied in Maricopa County under municipal jurisdiction). Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is leading the fight against the AMMA because he believes it would force public employees in Arizona to violate federal drug laws that prohibit the use, sale and cultivation of marijuana.

“We’re still asked to engage in facilitating violation of federal law and unless and until a court is able to show us how we can do it without breaking federal law, we can’t,” said Montgomery, describing part of his argument presented to Superior Court Judge Michael Gordon on Friday.

But lawyers from the ACLU who are representing Williams and his White Mountain Health Center said the state has every right to set policy. 

“[County attorneys are] coming in and making what seems to be largely a political argument that Arizona can't decide for itself what should be and shouldn't be criminal, and how Arizona wants to manage the health of its people,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project.

Edwards argued that while the federal government could still chose to enforce its laws in Arizona, that doesn’t prevent Arizona from decriminalizing medical marijuana use at the State level.  \Arizona is one of 17 states with some form of medical marijuana allowance and Edwards said the federal government has yet to punish any of those states.

“States are allowed to determine the contours of their own criminal laws and they're allowed to criminalize and decriminalize activity however they see fit, not withstanding that federal law may take a different approach,” said Edwards.

However, Montgomery said the AMMA goes beyond decriminalization because the application approval process gives state and local government employees an active role in facilitating marijuana use and sales. He also cited cases from other states where the federal government has punished individual citizens who are breaking federal laws by using, growing and selling medical marijuana under state laws.

“No one is saying there's not a conflict [between state and federal law]. The argument is whether or not there's a way to weasel around the federal prohibitions and I just don't think there is,” said Montgomery. “If people want to have marijuana for medicine there is a way to do it. But because of the regulatory scheme established by Congress, that has to go through Congress.”