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Updated Jul 31, 2013 - 4:07 pm

GOP lawmakers urge crackdown on illegal pot clubs

PHOENIX -- A dozen Republican lawmakers are urging law enforcement officials to crack down on illegal marijuana clubs that operate outside of the state's medical marijuana law.

The letter sent to state Attorney General Tom Horne, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio last week asks them to ``vigorously enforce'' the state medical marijuana law and close the shops and clubs operating outside the law.

The letter obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times says licensed dispensaries are operating within Arizona law and ``are doing their best to fully comply with both the spirit and letter of our laws'' but the clubs do not.

Some of the more conservative members of the Legislature signed the letter. They include many who sponsored failed legislation to tighten the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 2010.

Horne was largely responsible for a yearlong restraining order that barred the Arizona Department of Health and Human Services from processing dispensary applications as a federal lawsuit worked through the courts. He wanted a federal court to declare Arizona's medical marijuana program unconstitutional because it violated federal drug laws, but he was rebuffed.

Illegal clubs began sprouting up while the dispensary licensing process was delayed by Horne's lawsuit. They typically allow people, sometimes with and sometimes without a proper state medical marijuana certification, to share, buy or sell marijuana outside the state's rigorous tracking system.

Montgomery is still engaged in a nearly identical legal battle in state court. Montgomery also has argued that Maricopa County cannot process zoning permits for the dispensaries, because doing so would violate federal drug laws. Montgomery is awaiting a state appeals court hearing after losing in Maricopa County Superior Court. In the meantime, the county's zoning office has been ordered by the courts to process dispensaries' zoning requests.

The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Judy Burges and Chester Crandell, Reps. Jeff Dial, David Livingston, Kelly Townsend, Steve Montenegro, Darin Mitchell, Bob Thorpe, Ethan Orr, Steve Smith, David Stevens, Justin Olson and Livingston's wife, a Peoria school board member.

Half of the lawmakers supported failed bills this past legislative session that dispensary industry advocates said would have hurt their business and encouraged black-market marijuana sales.

Advocates for the full implementation of the licensed marijuana dispensary portion of the law said these efforts represented a desire to squeeze the industry out of business with onerous regulations, based only on an ideological opposition to marijuana as medicine. Supporters of the bills said they were simply intended to clean up the laws where problems might arise.

Townsend, of Mesa, said her signature on the letter does not mean she endorses medical marijuana, but that she wants law enforcement to focus on going after bad actors in the system, not those abiding by the state's medical marijuana laws.

``What I signed said we want to shut down the illegal dispensaries and enforce the law . That does not mean I give my endorsement to legal dispensaries,'' she said. ``I don't like any of it, but it's the law.''

Montgomery said he has already prosecuted charges against illegal clubs that have been passed to him by local police, and he intends to continue doing so.

``If you're not operating within the narrow confines of the (Arizona Medical Marijuana Act), you will be prosecuted,'' Montgomery assured.

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Information from: Arizona Capitol Times, http://www.arizonacapitoltimes.com

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