Pubdate: Thu, 21 May 2015
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2015 The Arizona Republic
Author: Yvonne Wingett Sanchez


A Prescott Valley anti-drug group is drawing fire for using money 
seized by law enforcement to warn about the dangers of marijuana.

The criticism comes from supporters of a proposed ballot measure to 
legalize the drug, who are also raising legal questions about the 
line between educating and campaigning.

Matforce, a non-profit organization, has received $110,612 in 
government-seized racketeering money over the past five years to 
educate the public about the harmful effects of marijuana, 
methamphetamine and other drugs. The group advocates against the 
legalization of marijuana using other funds, including private donations.

The focus of the dispute is the group's receipt and spending of 
$50,000 in RICO funds in December 2013. Since then, Matforce has 
spent the money on billboards, focus groups, public-service 
announcements and conferences featuring opponents of marijuana on 
public health grounds, among other things.

Some say the group's use of money brought in by the federal Racketeer 
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act could violate 
campaign-finance laws, although no one has elevated the dispute to an 
official complaint.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, who is leading an effort to 
oppose legalization, dismissed the criticism, saying it is the 
"playbook" of marijuana supporters to "intimidate public officials" 
who oppose marijuana legalization.

Attorney Kory Langhofer, who represents a pro-legalization group, 
said Matforce is required to be neutral on the proposed marijuana 
initiative because it is spending public funds. He said it is most 
likely illegal for the group "to spend money in a biased way."

He added: "They're spending tens of thousands of dollars that come 
from public coffers just at the time a ballot initiative is preparing 
to launch."

Langhofer cites a statute that requires neutrality in government 
expenditures that could influence elections. He said Matforce can use 
RICO funds to educate the public on election-related matters but its 
message must be neutral.

The problem arises when a political initiative comes into play, he 
said: "The government cannot fund propaganda."

The racketeering money comes from cash and assets seized in criminal 
investigations. They are distributed to law-enforcement agencies and 
can fund gang-prevention programs, substance-abuse prevention and 
education programs, and can be used to combat certain crimes.

A Yavapai County task force, which includes Polk, the sheriff and 
police chiefs, selects which organizations in the area receive the money.

Polk pointed out that Matforce, which she helped to found, received 
its money "three years before any election on the legalization of 
marijuana" became an issue and all of the money has been spent. In 
her view, the RICO funds were not used to influence the election, 
even though the group "is absolutely permitted to engage in 
activities regarding ballot initiatives."

She said the RICO funds were strictly used to "educate" the public 
about the dangers of marijuana and that group did not co-mingle that 
money with other funding. Matforce has also used RICO funds, grants 
and private money to warn the public about the dangers of 
methamphetamines, synthetic drugs, prescription drugs and heroin.

"Very clear lines have been drawn and will continue to be respected 
as we move forward," she wrote in an e-mail.

"To ask a substance-abuse coalition that's focused on our kids and 
their future to never use the word 'legalization' long before it's 
ever an issue in our state, is really ludicrous," she said, saying 
the group has advocated for drug prevention since 2006. "We are 
trying to raise awareness about the harms of marijuana. Along comes 
Marijuana Policy Project, and it targets Arizona for 2016 - which by 
the way is 18 months away."

Polk said Matforce was recently awarded $98,000 from the Arizona 
Criminal Justice Commission through a competitive grant process for 
marijuana substance-abuse prevention and education activities. Those 
public-health funds will be used "to implement a mass media campaign 
on the harms of marijuana," she said.

The planned 2016 ballot initiative would ask voters to legalize 
marijuana for recreational use and establish a network of licensed 
cannabis shops where sales of the drug would be taxed, in part, to 
fund education. Supporters of the Regulation and Taxation of 
Marijuana Act will soon start collecting signatures.

Attorney Tom Irvine said Matforce's spending of RICO funds on 
anti-marijuana legalization is not a black-and-white issue.

"Is there an election in the vicinity? If there's nobody circulating 
petitions and it's not on the ballot yet, there's public discussion 
on this," he said. "Certainly the minute an election is called then, 
boom, you can't spend government money anymore."

Christina Sandefur, vice president for policy at the Goldwater 
Institute, said when there is no election, using public resources to 
present factual information cannot reasonably be considered 
"influencing an election." But once a petition or ballot initiative 
papers are filed, "we are then dealing with an election, and the law 
requires absolute impartiality and neutrality," she said.

"At that point, public funds can only be used in a neutral manner, 
for purposes that are purely informational and provide an equal 
opportunity to all viewpoints," Sandefur said. But, she added, the 
group cannot be expected to "be a mind reader" about whether papers 
would be filed years later.

Carlos Alfaro, Arizona political co-director for the Marijuana Policy 
Project, said the law is "legally ambiguous" and said he thinks Polk 
and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who regularly speaks 
out against marijuana legalization, want to "abuse" public funds to 
oppose the initiative. Montgomery and Polk dispute the assertion.

"It's just ambiguous and ready for abuse at any time," Alfaro said. 
"Instead of being for public education, they're really just offering 
a one-sided argument against the ballot initiative. This is not about 
educating the public, it's about campaigning."

At the request of Polk and Montgomery, Arizona Attorney General Mark 
Brnovich this month issued a legal opinion that concluded public 
officials could use public resources to educate the public about why 
they think marijuana should not be legalized. Polk and Montgomery 
told The Republic they wanted to ensure they were abiding by the law.

In his opinion, Brnovich wrote that laws ban the use of public funds 
to influence electoral outcomes. But, he continued, nothing prevents 
public officials from taking part in campaigns to "educate" the 
public as long as "they do not unambiguously urge the electorate to 
cast a vote for or against" the marijuana ballot measure.

Brnovich withdrew the opinion last week, after critics said it could 
lead to the abuse of government resources.

In a statement, Brnovich's press secretary Kristen Keogh wrote that 
Brnovich takes seriously allegations that the opinion could lead 
abuse of public money. The attorney general plans to issue a new opinion.

"The original opinion offered by this office was intended to preserve 
the First Amendment right of elected officials who educate the public 
on ballot measures," she wrote. "This office remains committed to 
defending their right to free speech."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom