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Arizona Prosecutor Likens Cannabis Extracts To Illegally Manufactured Explosives

Sheila Polk
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk in 2018.

An Arizona prosecutor is doubling down on her argument that a popular form of medical marijuana remains illegal — even for those authorized to use the drug.

That comes as the Arizona Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a long-running legal fight over whether cannabis extracts qualify as medical marijuana.

Cannabis extracts are sold widely at dispensaries in Arizona and go into products like vape pens and edibles. But Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk maintains that the voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA) doesn’t immunize cannabis extracts.

In recent filings, Polk compares cannabis extracts to illegally manufactured bombs: “A finding that the AMMA protects the narcotic drug cannabis would be akin to a finding that explosives produced from fertilizer are protected by laws allowing the sale of farm products.”

Arizona’s voter-approved law doesn’t explicitly mention cannabis extracts. Meanwhile, the state’s criminal code — around long before the AMMA — does specifically distinguish between marijuana flower and extracts (what the statute labels “hashish”).

The Arizona Court of Appeals agreed with Polk’s interpretation and upheld the conviction of a medical-marijuana card holder named Rodney Jones.

Jones was arrested in Yavapai County and sent to prison for possession of cannabis oil.

Attorney Robert Mandel is now representing Jones at the Arizona Supreme Court.

Mandel calls this latest argument from the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office — particularly the comparison to explosives — “distortion” and “fear mongering.”

“It says a lot about the confidence it places in its own arguments and frankly the degree of respect it holds for Arizona voters,” Mandel said.

“Arizona voters declared that Arizona patients should be able to use the medicines of the cannabis plant,” Mandel said. “That medicine is in the plant’s resin.”

Resin contains the plant’s active ingredients, which are sequestered in small crystals, called trichomes. Those structures are most densely clustered in the flower, but are found in much of the plant.

Manufacturers use chemical extraction to produce a concentrated form of cannabinoids — similar to how the food industry makes vanilla or saffron.

The legal fight over extracts has gone on for years in Arizona, with courts taking different stances on the issue. Some patients have unknowingly ended up in jail or prison because of the discrepancy in how the law is enforced.

As KJZZ  reported, one medical-marijuana patient was arrested while undergoing chemotherapy and put in jail for possession of cannabis extracts. He faces the possibility of 10 years in prison.

The Jones’ case has now prompted the Arizona Supreme Court to take up the matter. What the justices decide could determine whether the more than 180,000 card holders can access these products without fear of arrest.

Polk is defending the state after Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said he would not keep fighting the case and withdrew his office’s previous arguments.

Her latest argument to the court appears to go beyond cannabis extracts. In the brief, she questions the legitimacy of the entire medical-marijuana program.

“If this court rejects the state’s position that Jones’s possession of cannabis was not protected by the AMMA, it should consider whether the AMMA is preempted by federal law,” the brief states. “The AMMA undermines the federal government’s ability to regulate the safety and efficacy of drugs.”

Oral arguments are scheduled for March 19. 

Will Stone grew up with the sounds of public radio. As a senior field correspondent, he strives to tell the same kind of powerful stories that got him into the business — whether that means trudging through some distant corner of the Sonoran Desert or uncovering an unknown injustice right down the street. Since joining the KJZZ newsroom in 2015, he has covered political scandals, fights over the future of energy, and efforts to care for some of Arizona’s most vulnerable communities. His pieces have also aired on national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now and Marketplace. Before coming to KJZZ, he reported for public radio stations in Nevada and Connecticut. Stone received his degree in English literature from Haverford College, where he also wrote about the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. After graduating, he interned at NPR West in Culver City, California, where he learned from some of the network’s veteran reporters and editors. When he doesn’t have a mic in hand, Stone enjoys climbing mountains, running through his central Phoenix neighborhood and shamelessly promoting his cat, Barry.