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From drug-exposed babies to at-risk students, how AZ marijuana money is helping nonprofits

A struggling mom once told Tara Sundem that detoxing from opioids is like feeling all of the worst symptoms of a migraine and the flu at max levels.

“For a baby when they are going through a withdrawal — same thing,” Sundem said.

An adult feeling this sick would choose a quiet and dark place to be.

But a neonatal intensive care unit where Sundem worked has incessant bright lights and beeping monitors.

So the nurse practitioner started using a closet to settle babies agitated by opioid withdrawals.  

“And when you do the deep breathing … like you hold your breath and you do that yoga breath. And baby would feel me relax. And they would relax,” said Sundem.

This is one experience that led Sundem to open a 12-bed recovery center for babies born substance-exposed. The rooms are darkened and there’s for parents to stay overnight.

“Number one goal healthy baby, we want baby to be healthy. Number two, we want baby to be safe. And number three, we want family unification,” said Sundem.

Which mom and dad can help ensure by completing behavioral health treatment offered by Hushabye Nursery. The organization offers cutting edge integrated care, but the model is not yet sustainable.

“I have a $6 million budget with about $3 million that I have to come up with,” said Sundem.

A very small cut from every recreational marijuana sale in Arizona gets set aside for what  Proposition 207 authors described as justice reinvestment. The state treasury has put more than $26 million into a namesake fund. Now health officials at the state and county level have started redistributing the money as grants to nonprofits such as Hushabye Nursery.

A justice reinvestment grant of $300,000 of marijuana revenue over three years will help Sundem some, and she plans to pursue more.

Sundem sees good and bad sides to legalization.

“And now there is cannabis-use disorder. I mean that’s a diagnosis,” said Sundem.

The nonprofit called Jobs for Arizona Graduates got a grant of $500,0000 of marijuana revenue over five years.

“How great that we're able to actually use it to impact youth and their educational attainment. I mean, that's something that our state desperately needs,” said Marjorie DeRubeis, president and CEO.

"How great that we're able to actually use it to impact youth and their educational attainment. I mean, that's something that our state desperately needs." — Marjorie DeRubeis, president and CEO of Jobs for Arizona Graduates

Her program takes high schoolers at risk of dropping out and puts them on a path to graduating with a future. 

“We are trying to get new industry to come to Arizona all the time. But we're not giving them the workforce that they need in order for them to stay,” said DeRubeis.

Teachers and administrators nominate students to take the program as an elective class.

There are guest speakers and field trips to companies like Honeywell.

DeRubeis will take more marijuana revenue because she wants Jobs for Arizona Graduates to be in every school.  

“We really try to work with each student. Try to figure out what makes them passionate. Try to develop their interests,” said DeRubeis.

Roughly three years passed between when Arizonans voted to legalize marijuana for adults and when DeRubeis and others got the first round of grants from state officials.

“The statute wasn't incredibly specific about what is a justice reinvestment program,’ said Siman Qaasim, assistant director for policy and intergovernmental affairs at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

It took time to learn which parts of Arizona were most impacted by marijuana prohibition and to then listen to the needs of the people there.

“A lot of folks were incarcerated or arrested because of something that is now legal. And so how can we go back to those communities and reinvest in them?” Qaasim said. 

What Qaasim is in charge of is different from most grant opportunities and a rarity for Arizona. “This is going to be sustained funding. As long as there is tax revenue from Prop 207, there are going to be funds available to do these grants.”

There is about $13 million available for the second round of justice reinvestment grants.

The hope is money will start going out in the next few months, and the goal is to fund grassroots groups trusted by the community they serve.

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Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.