Originally Published: May 13, 2013 10:02 p.m.
Chino Valley's new medical marijuana growing facility would be hard-pressed to find a better lawyer and adviser than a former U.S. Attorney for Arizona.
That is, unless it hired a former U.S. Attorney who also happens to have personal knowledge of the benefits of medical marijuana.
Mel McDonald is both of those men.
"They hired me to make sure we implement policies that are going to work," McDonald said. "I don't want to hurt something that's keeping my son alive."
McDonald is a Mormon who led the drug war in Arizona during the Reagan years. He also happens to have another local connection: he successfully prosecuted Michael and Patrick Poland for killing two armored van guards after then-Yavapai County Attorney Charles Hastings declined to pursue the cases. The brothers were executed in 1999 and 2000.
In 1997, McDonald's 14-year-old stepson Bennett was hit by a car while crossing a Gilbert street on a GoPed scooter.
Bennett suffered severe brain damage, and his weight dropped from 180 to 119 pounds because of constant nausea. He often couldn't keep medications down, let alone food. And he began to suffer from epileptic seizures.
A few years after Bennett's accident, a neighbor who took marijuana for pain offered it to Bennett. Suddenly Bennett was able to eat and take his other medications. Bennett's mother Cindy felt she had no choice but to help her son obtain the illegal marijuana while keeping it a secret from her husband, knowing they all could end up on page 1 in the news.
When Mel noticed Bennett's weight gain Cindy finally told Mel about the marijuana, but as an attorney Mel was forced to keep his distance from the situation.
The family was thrilled when Arizona voters approved medical marijuana in 2010. But they still kept their secret until Rep. John Kavanagh proposed legislation this year to put the medical marijuana question back on the ballot in an attempt to repeal it. At that point, Mel knew he had to speak out.
"Basically, without marijuana I don't eat," Bennett said. "It's a better remedy than anything I've had in my life.
"My life depends on this stuff."
It's also about dignity, Cindy said.
"I wish people could come and see the daily struggle," Cindy said. "All of us as humans have to be more open minded and stop judging people until we walk in their shoes."
Cindy recalled how her son threw away his prescription painkillers just a day after doctors removed part of his brain in an unsuccessful attempt to try to reduce his seizures. Others abuse those painkillers but no one talks about taking them away from everyone; yet those same people want to take legal marijuana from her son.
"That never made sense to me," she said.
McDonald said he agreed to represent the Chino Valley medical marijuana cultivation site and help set it up because he wants to help make it a poster child for carrying out the MMJ program the right way.
"There can't be mistakes," he said. "It's got to be done right."
He said he's even consulted with the Secret Service to make sure the Chino facility is secure.
"I think it's going to be a win-win for the valley," he said. "And the tax revenues will be outstanding."
McDonald doesn't believe the feds will disrupt Arizona's medical marijuana program by confiscating buildings and marijuana at commercial cultivation sites.
"I'm of the belief that the feds aren't going to do anything to an operation that's legitimate, that follows the rules," McDonald said. He knows current U.S. Attorney for Arizona John Leonardo well, since Leonardo used to work for him.
The California dispensaries that were raided by the feds were fronting for illegal marijuana sales, McDonald said.
McDonald praised the Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer for approving Senate Bill 1443 to allow universities and colleges to conduct medical marijuana research.
He criticized the federal government for continuing to classify marijuana as a Class 1 drug with no medicinal value, making it harder to conduct scientific tests on it.
"It is insane the government treats this as Class 1," he said. "It's absolutely hypocritical. It's almost like a Dark Age mentality: 'Let's not test it because we may not like the answer.'
"Let's use this God-given plant from the Earth."