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Medical Marijuana Loophole Case Headed To Arizona's Supreme Court


Marijuana is on the ballot in a handful of states next month. Some states like Utah and Missouri will vote on whether to legalize it for medical use. Others, including Michigan and North Dakota, are considering legal recreational use. But in Arizona, one patient's felony conviction has exposed the loopholes that conform when voters use the ballot for marijuana reform. Will Stone of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Imagine going to the pharmacy, picking up your prescription only to later learn you've committed a felony. In Arizona, this isn't hypothetical, not for some medical marijuana patients.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It looks like I have a plea in this case.

STONE: The woman was appearing in court on drug charges just earlier this year. The narcotic - a small amount of cannabis oil in a vaporizer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So you had possession of something that you purchased at a...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Dispensary...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...With a valid medical marijuana card.


STONE: The prosecutor explains...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: She had marijuana wax, which is a narcotic drug.

STONE: A narcotic drug - she could face felony charges if she doesn't plead guilty. She takes the deal. It's a situation that supporters of medical marijuana fear could soon play out in courtrooms across the state - patients facing prosecution for cannabis oil, what goes into everything from edibles to vape pens. That's after Arizona's second-highest court recently upheld the conviction of a man named Rodney Jones. A medical marijuana cardholder, Jones went to prison for having cannabis oil.

ROBERT MANDEL: He was certainly acting, in his view, according to the rules.

STONE: That's attorney Robert Mandel, who's asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Jones's conviction.

MANDEL: It seems implausible that the intent of the electorate was that the only way that that medication could be administered to them would be by smoking a joint.

STONE: But that's in effect what the ruling means. Under the court's logic, many of the states 180,000 medical marijuana patients are committing felonies.

MANDEL: Clearly there's a lot at stake.

STONE: So how does this happen with a product sold for years, even regulated by the state? The legal dispute centers on whether Arizona's Medical Marijuana Act first passed by voters as a ballot measure in 2010 includes cannabis extracts. Sheila Polk, a prosecutor and one of Arizona's staunchest foes of marijuana, says no. In fact, it's her office that went after Rodney Jones.

SHEILA POLK: This case affirmed the way cannabis has always been treated in this county by my office, which is that it's a narcotic drug.

STONE: Many dispute her interpretation, but it's unclear how many other prosecutors are now following her lead. Polk believes medical marijuana supporters are taking advantage of the ballot box by pushing initiatives that voters don't fully understand.

POLK: They weren't contemplating that manufacturers would be extracting one chemical from that marijuana plant to make this, you know, mind-blowing product.

STONE: Arizona is a cautionary tale about the possible fallout of using the ballot instead of state legislators to craft marijuana reform laws, says Rob Mikos. He's a law professor at Vanderbilt University and says these measures aren't always comprehensive.

ROB MIKOS: You're opening the door to those opponents to sort of revisit the issue and exploit those gaps.

STONE: Michigan, for example, only clarified in 2016 what was legal in their state years after voters passed their medical marijuana measure. Mikos says many lawmakers don't want to get ahead of these disputes.

MIKOS: The way to correct this problem - you know, these gaps between the letter and spirit of these marijuana reforms - is to have them addressed first and foremost by legislatures and professional bureaucrats that know how to write legislation that deals with and can anticipate with - all those problems that might come up.

STONE: That did not happen in Arizona. In fact, a bill aimed at fixing the problem earlier this year never got a hearing. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.