Eastern Arizona Courier Article by Brooke Curley
A Peoria-based organization calling itself Protect Graham County No to Drugs hopes to get an initiative placed on an upcoming election ballot that could tax marijuana sellers out of business.
Tim Sifert, president of the American Campaign Finance Foundation in Scottsdale, said he filed the application for an initiative or referendum petition on June 30 after being hired to do so.
If the initiative makes it onto the ballot, voters would be asked to approve a measure that would “amend the code of Graham County” to impose a $1,000 occupational permit fee to cultivate cannabis and $1,000 for every pound of cannabis or cannabis byproduct sold or transferred. Those who don’t pay the fees could have their permits revoked.
According to the application, all funds generated under the new code would go toward “public safety and for prevention of drug abuse by Graham County minors.”
Sifert declined to identify his employer, but he is listed on the application as treasurer of Protect Graham County No to Drugs.
“I work with all different kinds of committees and candidates, they just hire me to do the paperwork,” he said.
Kenneth Krieger, the listed chairman of the organization on the application, did not return calls. This is not the first anti-marijuana battle he’s been involved in and it’s the second involving, tangentially at least, NatureSweet.
Krieger’s name popped up in a lawsuit involving marijuana a few years back.
According to a Capitol Media Services story, the Town of Snowflake issued a special use permit to a company called Copperstate in 2016 to grow marijuana in an existing greenhouse the firm had purchased from a company that previously had grown tomatoes and cucumbers.
That company was NatureSweet, which recently won a six-month zoning battle in Graham County.
Several Snowflake residents, represented by the Phoenix law firm Statecraft, filed suit charging violations of open meeting laws, setback requirements and what they called “illegal contract zoning.”
Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed in a ruling that went all of the way to the Arizona Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, essentially allowing a ruling from the Court of Appeals to stand.
According to that ruling, there was more than enough evidence to conclude the lawsuit never should have been filed in the first place and Statecraft acted improperly to impede Copperstate from its lawful business.
According to the Capitol Media Services story, part of the court’s reasoning was based on an article from the White Mountain Independent about a recall effort launched against council members who had approved the special use permit.
Krieger, a retired chiropractor from Peoria, told a reporter he had been recruited to head the recall committee by a Statecraft lawyer to stop the facility and that reporter’s article became part of the legal battle.
Statecraft was ordered to pay nearly $150,000 in legal fees. Statecraft has represented business interests and the Arizona Republican Party in multiple lawsuits, several involving successful efforts to knock initiatives off the ballot.
In June, the Graham County Board of Supervisors voted, 2-1, to approve a zoning change request that will allow for a marijuana greenhouse in Bonita. As a result of the decision, NatureSweet Executive Chairman Bryant Ambelang said he intends to sell one or two of his greenhouses in Bonita to Bayacan, which will then cultivate marijuana and send it to distributors that will then decide whether it will be used for medical or recreational marijuana.
Heather Dukes, a Bayacan attorney, said Wednesday the measure, if passed, would prevent any cannabis cultivation in the county.
“We’re trying to get the word out to people so they fully understand what is being proposed and how it’s going to impact the jobs and economic growth,” Dukes said Wednesday. “We’re going to continue with our plans. We’re monitoring this very closely but at the same time we’ve made commitments to do certain things as part of the rezoning process. Over the next 30 days we will continue with our course of action and keep moving forward.”
On July 6, during an interview posted to the Graham County Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page, Dukes told Vance Bryce, the chamber’s executive director, that a pound of cannabis is sold for $500-$1,800 per pound before taxes.
The ballot measure, if passed, would also affect an Eden marijuana farm. The Graham County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a zoning change in April that will allow for a new 35- to 37-acre outdoor marijuana farm on Hot Springs Road. It’s owned by Clint Colvin, a member of the Pima Unified School District Board.
Bryce, who has backed Bayacan, made a presentation to the Pima Town Council on Tuesday night explaining the petition.
“If you don’t like cannabis, go ahead and sign it,” he said to the council. “If you feel like businesses should be allowed to have a chance in this county and shouldn’t have excessive taxes, just tell them, ‘I’m pro-business, I don’t want to sign this.’”
Bryce said the chamber has received calls, texts and emails from community members wanting to take their names off the petition.
When a signature seeker approaches, they ask if they want to support the police and fire departments through community taxes. When the community member answers yes they are asked to sign the petition, he said.
“What they’re not telling them is it’s to support a $1,000 tax per pound on cannabis, and that would tax cannabis businesses out of existence in this county,” Bryce said.
The petition would require 1,596 signatures to be placed on the ballot, said Hannah Duderstadt, Graham County election director.
The next normally scheduled election is set for 2022, but if the petition is filed, a special election may be called, Duderstadt said.
The statute regarding these special elections is somewhat difficult to understand, and they rarely happen in Graham County, she said.
She has sought the opinion of the Graham County Attorney’s Office on when the petition must be filed.
Duderstadt also said a resident can call Graham County’s election office and sign a statement for their name to be taken off the petition.