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Radio station DJs Arles Struvie, played by Evan Luthye, and Thurston Wheelis, played by Susan Chastain, banter back and forth on the various goings on of Tuna, Texas.

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Flagstaff dispensaries, law enforcement prepare for recreational marijuana

After 10 years since medicinal marijuana was passed by Arizona voters, the state has now also approved recreational use.

Ryan Hermansky, local dispensary owner, said the recent passage of Proposition 207 legalizing recreational marijuana is a milestone for the state.

It will also be a milestone for his licensed medical marijuana business, which he felt many did not immediately accept coming out of the gate.

"When we were first awarded a license through the lottery process ... the stigma attached with being involved in the industry, it was borderline taboo," Hermansky said. "When dispensaries started to open there were quite frankly a number of uncomfortable conversations. That has gotten astronomically better since then."

Prop 207 passed in Arizona with 60.3% of the vote in favor out of a total of 3.2 million votes. In Coconino County, the measure passed by slightly stronger margins, with 46,424 voters making up 65% of the county's approval.

Hermansky contributed to the campaign and was excited to see the support the proposition received. He felt other political leaders or issues didn't get nearly as large of a victory.

"The progress made drastically to a 60-40 landslide shows the changing feeling that patients and soon-to-be customers have of marijuana,” he said.

The vote will not be officially canvassed until Monday, but major media outlets called the race, and many results haven’t swayed.

With the votes submitted, it is now up for the Arizona Department of Health Services to clarify how the drug will be regulated. The Arizona Department of Health current regulates medical marijuana, and it declined to comment until the votes are canvassed.

Meanwhile, police are analyzing what has been written in the law to understand how their policies will shift.

"We are working with our legal advisor to provide guidance to our officers on the new law as we would do with any other new law," said Charles Hernandez, spokesperson for the Flagstaff Police Department, said. "We will continue to respond to the public for calls to investigate and ensure any possession or use of marijuana is legal."

The Smart and Safe Arizona ballot measure opens up the ability to possess an ounce, or one eighth of a gram, of marijuana and five grams of marijuana concentrate. It doesn't restrict the rights of employers to maintain drug-and-alcohol-free workplaces. It also opens avenues for people who were convicted of possessing 2.5 ounces of marijuana to petition to have that record erased.

The measure will also provide money for education, mental health and substance abuse and public safety.

The business

Sam Richards, executive director of the Arizona Dispensary Association, said business normally doubles in states where medicinal marijuana turns to recreational use.

Currently, there are more than 297,000 licensed medicinal marijuana users in the state, according to the state health department's Sept. 2020 report.

Coconino has the fifth-highest amount of patients among the counties with 6,061 qualified patients. Across the state, 94% of cardholders are qualified for chronic pain.

Richards said current dispensaries will likely consider going to zoning laws to expand their facilities or parking lots to adapt to "more feet coming through the door."

He also admitted that education is going to be a large part of their business, for people who might be unfamiliar with the range of current products.

"Across the state, flower remains the most popular form of consumption," Richards said. "As you introduce broader and less familiar communities into regular consumption those methods might shift."

Under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act passed in 2010, there cannot be more than one marijuana dispensary for more than every 10 pharmacies. That rule stays in place with the new recreational ballot measure.

Arizona currently manages 130 medical marijuana dispensaries that would all have the opportunity to become recreational facilities under the measure. The department will later issue 26 more licenses through a social equity program.

Flagstaff currently has three dispensaries -- Greenhouse, High Mountain Health and Greenpharms.

"The assumption is that you have more pharmacies as you have a larger population. There isn't a need to have a pharmacy on every corner until population size demands that," Richards said.

The department is also expected to adopt rules to ensure the sale and labeling of marijuana products contain adequate warnings about use. The packages must also be child resistant.

Marijuana delivery will not be an immediate factor in the marijuana industry, and the department must wait to implement rules between 2023 and 2025.

Law enforcement

When laws are changed by ballot measure, police find it difficult to speculate about every impact of the new law, especially when so much remains unwritten.

Hernandez wanted to ensure people understood that even though adults over the age of 21 can possess marijuana, it's not legal in every instance.

For example, adults can smoke marijuana in their homes, but not in open or public spaces.

"It is still a crime, even under Proposition 207, for a person of any age to possess over 2.5 ounces of marijuana or over 12.5 grams of marijuana concentrate," Hernandez said via email. "Those in possession of these amounts will still be investigated and possibly charged with a crime if there is probable cause to believe they possess marijuana over the amounts allowed."

It will be a criminal petty offense punishable by a fine of $300 for a person who is older than 21 possessing between 1 and 2.5 ounces of marijuana, or between 5 and 12.5 grams of concentrate.

It is a civil violation for anyone younger than 21 to possess any amount of marijuana or concentrate leading to a fine of $100 for the first offense. The second offense is a criminal petty offense, and all other subsequent offenses are a criminal class one misdemeanor. People under 21 cannot own edibles or associated paraphernalia.

Local communities can make ordinances regarding the drug as well.

In 2019, the Flagstaff Police Department arrested 802 people for marijuana use, possession or paraphernalia violations.

Within those violations, 136 people were arrested for possession and 474 for paraphernalia. Additionally, 192 people were arrested for both possession and paraphernalia.

Acting Police Chief Dan Musselman said the department is concerned about young children and pets being sent to the hospital by eating improperly stored or disposed edible forms of marijuana. Musselman was also concerned about the impact driving under the influence of marijuana could have on public safety.

The department is also concerned about driving under the influence of alcohol, where last year saw 381 people arrested for driving while intoxicated and 385 arrests the year prior.

But there are no breathalyzers to measure the active ingredients in marijuana, and no laws exist to charge people to varying degrees of intensity of marijuana use dependent on something such as blood alcohol content. Without these tools, officers will likely have to rely on evidence the officer perceives.

Officers normally rely on observing driving behavior that indicates an impairment or report from other motorists. Training has existed for years for officers to receive advanced DUI detection training and officers can be certified as drug recognition experts.

"One of our biggest concerns with this change in the law is that people may decide to drive while under the influence or marijuana -- which will put our motoring public at greater risk," Musselman said via email.

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A COVID Thanksgiving: Pass the gravy or take a pass altogether?
  • Updated

And to think that, once, the only illness we had to worry about on Thanksgiving was salmonella poisoning from an undercooked turkey.

Simpler times, then.

Now, the beloved national holiday whose very raison d’etre is the gathering of extended family and friends in communal bread-breaking and hearty fellowship is considered by many, including most public health officials, as a threat to our well-being.

The coronavirus has upended much of life as we have known it since March, but the idea of canceling Thanksgiving because of the pandemic hits especially hard. With COVID-19 cases rising at alarming rates as winter prepares to set in, elected officials and health experts have discouraged Thanksgiving celebrations in hopes of quelling the spread of the virus.

But will the public, which is now said to be battling COVID-precaution fatigue as well as the illness itself, heed the warnings and scale back plans, forgo travel and instead turn to that virtual alternative, Zoom, to connect with Grandma Rose and Uncle Mo?

In Flagstaff, many are. They lament the loss of this most American of holidays but vow to make the best of it on their own. Others have gotten creative with their alternative plans, trying to keep the festive vibe amid the gloom of contagion. A few, though, have vowed to press forward, defiant of the recommendations.

After a relaxing of restrictions in late summer with the fall of reported cases, last week saw Coconino County report its highest number of cases since the pandemic began. It infection rate percentage rests at 11.2, higher than the state average.

Which is why some have looked at the numbers and opted out. Take Lori and Mark Edwards, who have regrettably canceled their planned family get-together out of an abundance of caution.

“We decided to stay home and also not have anyone in the house about a month ago,” Lori said. “We have been isolating since the pandemic began and will continue until a vaccine is available. We are very disappointed, as we live to have guests and usually spend one or both holidays with the kids.

“We have grandchildren and great grandchildren we have not seen since the pandemic began. Our children are also being very careful and staying home. None of us want to take the chance that one of us would become very ill or die from the virus. Most likely, we will have a Zoom snack with the kids on the holiday.”

It’s a cold comfort, watching your loved ones carved into the turkey breast from afar. It’s just not the same, settling in at the holiday table spread in multiple locales. You cannot pass the gravy or comment on the tartness of the cranberry sauce on a pixelated screen.

Which is why some are defying recommendations from officials and plan to gather in large groups just like any other November.

A Flagstaff woman who did not want her name used out of concern of retribution said she believes the coronavirus concerns are overblown and, thus, she will gather extended family Thursday as is customary.

“We are not altering our Thanksgiving plans,” she said in an email interview. “I am the matriarch of the family, and I made the decision to hold our beautiful, unique, national holiday in happiness rather than in fear.”

The woman said she is going against “science” (her quotation marks) based recommendations because she and her family refuse to succumb to alarmist fears. She said she is a Stage 3 cancer survivor who, as a child, survived a category 5 tornado and, as an adult, a category 5 typhoon that destroyed her home in the Western Pacific. She also reported that she survived an attempted car-jacking, a serious fall from a horse and “severe food poisoning in a foreign country.”

What’s more, her father has survived whooping cough and Polio as a child and recently battled lymphoma cancer, while her mother survived melanoma cancer and recently a bout of COVID-19 in her nursing home.

“You probably see where this is going,” she said. “… In a nutshell, we are not afraid. We are not selfish, either. After thoroughly researching and finding COVID’s extremely high survival rates and its very low risk of negative life-impacting problems — along with input from several family doctors — we've chosen to reject living in fear or to lose rights and freedoms.

“It is fear and oppression that holds far greater risks for our family and America than the possibility of having COVID-19 at the dinner table.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Flagstaff resident Lynn Merrill. Her family is out of town, so she’ll be spending Thanksgiving at home, alone.

“I will have turkey and stuffing, anyway, just so I don't feel as if I have entirely missed the holiday,” she said.

Christmas, which she planned to spend with her daughter, who lives out of town, is off for Merrill as well.

“We have never missed a holiday together,” Merrill said. “This will be a first. We will Zoom so we can compare notes on how long our hair has gotten since we haven't cut it due to not seeing anybody anyway.”

Teresa Loge has family members with compromised immune systems, so she and her husband will stay at home in Flagstaff rather than visiting families in California and Colorado. “We will all gather for a Zoom Thanksgiving prayer,” she said.

Going for a middle-ground approach

Many more, though, are not canceling plans altogether. They are taking a middle-ground approach.

Kathy Stock has whittled down her usually full Thanksgiving house because of the virus. It meant making some tough decisions involving family members.

“We will be having our daughter and her two sons at our house,” she said. “That is much smaller than usual. Two of our son's children are college age and have been on campus, so we decided to not invite them. It is a tough decision.

“We also usually include some friends, but due to some of them having health issues, we felt it wasn't wise to invite them, either. Life is complicated right now, but we do have it better than others. I have a dear friend in a group home that hasn't been able to leave it except for necessary visits to doctors. Hopefully, all will take care to help not spread the virus.”

What to do about grown children returning from college campuses is a thorny issue. Campuses have had a high spread of the virus, and Northern Arizona University, Arizona State and the University of Arizona are encouraging students to take free COVID-19 tests before leaving campus later this week.

Some college students may feel exiled, and others have no qualms about returning home for a large gathering.

NAU junior Patrick Hoyack, studying hotel and restaurant management, usually gathers on Thanksgiving with a large extended family — dozens — in Douglas. This year, though, the family is scaling back. Patrick and his mother, who lives in Flagstaff, will travel to Mesa to have dinner with his older brother, Casey. He said, in all, there will be 10 people in attendance.

“When my family and I are eating, we’ll definitely take our masks off, but just then,” said Hoyack, a thyroid cancer survivor, said. “If we go to the store or mall after that, we’ll definitely wear a mask. I wish we had a vaccine right away, but as far as traveling on Thanksgiving, I’m not concerned right now. I’ll tell all the people traveling, do good and be good.”

Several families contacted have planned ahead and either quarantined or been tests, or both, before heading to a gathering.

“Our family of four is more conservative in regards to COVID-19 and, therefore, we will have a revised Thanksgiving,” Flagstaff resident Diane Cohen said. “Our extended families, though only two hours away, are very lax with COVID-19, so we will stay our distance from them. I will be cooking a turkey breast due to the fact that I'm cooking for only four, but will be making all the other traditional sides.”

Rosemary Hopkins’ extended family is driving to Arizona from Arkansas for the holiday. They plan to gather in a time share in another city that has undergone extensive cleaning protocols.

Hopkins said her family has remained home “leaving only for essentials” for the past eight months in preparation for Thanksgiving.

“Our plans were made months ago,” she said. “We have not been together in many months and all agreed we need to live our lives with heightened precautions. Several family members had COVID before it was declared a pandemic. They were not hospitalized. This may be the last holiday any of us will have. Even if there was no pandemic, we could make that assertion. We will be diligent as we have been for the past eight months and will do a two-week quarantine when we return home.”

Amanda Souders said she and her family members took COVID tests and have been quarantining for two weeks so that “Grandma, Granddad, Nana, and Uncle Tom can join us” for Thanksgiving.

“We are taking extra precautions to be able to stay safe, and most importantly, to keep the grandparents safe,” she said. “Fortunately, everyone is in Arizona, so there's no extensive travel involved.

“We usually host a large family gathering, and our hearts are aching to see our extended family including my sister and her kids. We are remembering to stay grateful for technology that keeps us in touch with each other, for the progress on a vaccine, and for essential workers who enable all of us to have access to food, medical care, and things we need. Our hearts go out to families who won't get to be together this year.”

Just because some are forgoing a sit down meal at home doesn’t mean the holiday cannot be festive and memorable.

Jack Johnson, his wife and friends will gather at Fort Tuthill County Park to play a spirited round of disc golf. A Flagstaff resident named Carol, who declined to give her last name because of safety concerns, said she and friend from Cottonwood plan to take an eight-mile hike in Sedona.

“We’re trying to find a restaurant to go to afterwards,” she said. “We like going to Famous Pizza, but they aren’t open. We need someplace with a nice outdoor patio. If we can’t find a restaurant, maybe we’ll just hang out afterwards and eat whatever our leftover hiking food is and call it a day.”

Trail mix for Thanksgiving dinner?

“Sure,” she said, laughing. “Why not, right?”

Coconino’s Andy Ruiz (7) runs his route and looks back for the catch Friday night during a game against Estrella Foothills at Cromer Stadium on the Coconino High School campus.