In Arizona the fight to maintain marijuana prohibition has been led in recent years by Bill Montgomery, the top prosecutor in the state’s largest county.
He’s the face of the campaign opposing a ballot measure that Arizona voters will either approve or reject in two weeks. His repeated lawsuits aimed at derailing the medical-marijuana system approved in 2010, which have mostly failed, delayed the system’s implementation by about a year.
A report published in the Arizona Republic Wednesday reveals why Montgomery has such a keen interest in keeping marijuana laws on the books: His agency, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO), reaps millions of dollars every year because of the illegality of marijuana.
Maricopa includes Phoenix, the nation’s sixth-largest city
The scheme incentivizes maximizing the number of marijuana charges move through the county attorney’s office every year—and gives Montgomery a profit motive to oppose the measure.
First, police make a marijuana-related arrests. Once charged, MCAO offers a rehabilitation program to lessen their charge. For every person who ends up in this situation, the rehabilitation center contracted by MCAO, called Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC), assesses substantial charges to those assigned. TASC also gives a $650 kickback to the sheriff’s office.
It means that police, but more so MCAO and TASC, all benefit from keeping marijuana as illegal as possible. Police can justify growing or maintaining budgets because of the arrests, MCAO pads its operating budget with the finder’s fee, and TASC gets guaranteed business —over the past six years, 15,000 court-ordered customers in Maricopa County alone!
MCAO has seen $15 million in revenue from the arrangement over the past ten years. Of note, those past ten years include the period when Arizona legalized medical marijuana, which may already have put a dent in the marijuana rehabilitation-industrial-complex.
On the same day of the news, Montgomery backed out of a scheduled debate he was scheduled to have with the chairman of the campaign to legalize adult-use of marijuana in Arizona, JP Holyoak,
Reached later, Holyoak regretted not being able to put the issue to Montgomery directly.
“We’ve known that Bill Montgomery has been campaigning on behalf of opioid drug companies and prison contractors, but we were shocked to learn that his office receives kickbacks from the TASC diversion program,” Holyoak said. “Bill Montgomery has betrayed the public trust by campaigning to keep small amounts of marijuana a possession a felony, while at the same time profiting from marijuana prosecution.”
A spokesperson for the opposition campaign responded by saying that Montgomery is not formally involved with the campaign, so to direct questions directly to Montgomery. A spokesperson for MCAO did not respond to requests for comment.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said in an email that Yavapai County does not participate in the same kind of diversion program, but defended the program nonetheless.
“The assertion that the existence of deferred prosecution programs for drug offenders creates a financial interest for county attorneys to oppose the legalization of marijuana is ludicrous and ignores the reality of the negative impact of the proposed initiative on our communities, our roads and our youth,” Polk wrote.
Board members from TASC did not respond to requests for comment.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the Washington DC-based organization supporting marijuana law reform proposals in several states, cast the news as more offensive than surprising.
“This is a perfect example of how the arrest and prosecution industry is promoting its own self interest by fighting to keep marijuana illegal. They don’t care if adults are being punished for using a substance less harmful than alcohol, or even if they are fostering a dangerous criminal market. They just want to maintain power and their bottom lines so they can continue with businesses as usual.”
The report comes at a crucial time in the election cycle, as early ballots were sent to Arizona voters on October 10, and with less than two weeks before the election.
In stark contrast with the nearly non-existent opposition campaign to the 2010 medical marijuana ballot measure that passed by a fraction of a percent, the opposition campaign coalesced early and enlisted the official support of just about every elected Republican in the state.
The opposition campaign also brought in millions of dollars this time from well-heeled, regular GOP individual donors, corporations—some with questionable interests, like Insys, the drug company that produces Fentanyl—and political regulars, like the state chamber of commerce.
So far, the opposition campaign has taken in $5 million—$3 million in just the past month—and has regularly purchased airtime since early ballots were sent to voters.
The campaign to legalize marijuana has received about one-third of its total $4 million in funding from MPP. The other half has almost entirely come from medical marijuana dispensaries and their owners, who would benefit from the provisions of the ballot measure, which initially give them exclusive rights to adult-use sales.
Polls show Arizonans are nearly evenly split on the matter, with the election just days away. Although likely voters who say they support legalizing have shown a slight edge over the those opposing it, one local political consultant said that may not be enough to get it passed. One local political consultant said he thinks ballot measures typically need greater support heading into the final stage of an election, because undecided voters, or those who are confused or don’t fully understand the ballot measure, tend to vote no.
Early ballots are being received by county election offices already. Officials say they’ve received roughly 35 percent of what they expect to be the total ballots cast. With more than half of the ballots to be cast in Arizona still uncast yet, those interested in helping the campaign can volunteer in a variety of ways, through the campaign here.