Cosmologist Carl Sagan once said, “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
But if the late Sagan could see the heated battle for the ballot unfolding in Arizona right now over two different marijuana legalization initiatives, he’d see a whole new side of “sensitivity” and a severely fractured “fellowship” among the state’s cannabis activists. Once united in their desire to decriminalize recreational marijuana in Arizona, the group has fractured in recent months, authoring separate bills. Though their ultimate goal is the same, the two initiatives differ greatly in terms of regulation and framework, and each side is passionate about its case – to the point of contempt and resentment, in some instances.
On one side is the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, sponsored in Arizona by the national Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the same organization that successfully drafted and lobbied for the bills that recently legalized recreational marijuana in Washington state, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. MPP also has a successful history over the past decade with medical marijuana initiatives all over the country, including Arizona; they authored and campaigned for Proposition 203, which became Arizona’s voter-approved medical marijuana law in 2010. MPP’s regulation initiative allows for a limited number of retail licenses for recreational pot shops – and gives priority to existing medical marijuana dispensaries; calls for the establishment of a Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control – and transference of control over the state’s medical marijuana program from the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) to the new licensing department; and imposes felony penalties for possession, sale and/or cultivation beyond the legal limits.
On the other side is the Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, from a group called Arizonans for Mindful Regulation (AZFMR), a collective of cannabis activists, medical marijuana patients and other volunteer petitioners. Their measure includes several provisions related to what initiative author Jason Medar calls “consumer rights,” including post-conviction relief, unlimited cultivation, and misdemeanor penalties for possession beyond the (much higher) legal limits. It allows for 10 times the number of retail licenses the MPP initiative does, and leaves control of Arizona’s current medical marijuana program with AZDHS. (See sidebar for a breakdown of each initiative.)
Embedded in the framework of the respective bills are subtle but meaningful ideological differences – and some intriguing economics. Some MPP initiative supporters say the AZFMR initiative is too liberal to win over the majority of Arizona voters. Those backing the AZFMR initiative say the MPP initiative is all about current medical marijuana dispensaries protecting their status as pot oligarchs.
Meanwhile, there’s a third actor mobilizing against them both – the anti-legalization faction, led by the likes of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, and embodied by the group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. Opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana and armed with statistics showing its societal harms, they’re campaigning for the kill. “We are going to go full bore,” says Seth Leibsohn, co-chair (with Polk) of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. “I like to quote Churchill: ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches, we’ll fight them on the landing grounds, we’ll fight them on the fields and in the streets.’ We’re going to be raising millions of dollars to do more ads, more community education – look, I don’t think there’s a better cause than the protection of the minds of our children and our youth.”
It appears Arizona voters may get to decide for themselves. Each initiative must garner 150,642 signatures by July 7, 2016, in order to land on the November 2016 ballot, and their respective campaign directors both claimed to have gathered more than 75,000 as this issue went to press.
No Joint Effort
Grandmother and self-described “cannabis advocate” Kathy Inman supports the Marijuana Policy Project initiative. A former leader in the Phoenix chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), she now heads her own marijuana education group, MomForce AZ, and spends her time speaking to groups in Sun City, and to politicians and law enforcement including Sheriff Joe Arpaio, trying to convince them to open their minds to what she describes as the positive effects of cannabis, both medicinally and in keeping youth away from harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.
“I support the Marijuana Policy Project 100 percent because I know they have the funding, they have the ability to get this initiative passed,” Inman says. “We don’t have a lot of funding here on the ground, and so these folks, they gather the funding from across the nation and everyone who’s interested pitches in. And I always cross my fingers that it’s going to be fair for everyone, but I believe a step forward is better than a step backwards or just staying where we are.”
But some activists view the MPP legalization initiative as a step backward. “Our group had worked with MPP over the past year to ensure that the language in their initiative actually kept marijuana consumers out of jail for marijuana offenses. We had a list of essential consumer protections we insisted be included in their initiative,” says Jason Medar, campaign manager for the Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, and one of the authors of the AZFMR initiative. “Very long story short, MPP chose to write an initiative that focuses only on the medical marijuana dispensaries’ financial interests, and does not include a lot of the important consumer protections we insisted upon. So after a lot of negotiating back and forth, ultimately our group – along with a lot of other local marijuana activist groups – we wrote our own initiative.”
The five provisions MPP did not include, according to the newly established Cannabis Consumers Coalition – a collective of marijuana activist groups including Safer Arizona, which supports AZFMR – were de-felonization for marijuana offenses beyond the legal limits, legalized personal cultivation at private residences, post-conviction relief (felony convictions for marijuana offenses prior to legalization would be reduced to misdemeanors), protections against being given a DUI charge for the presence of marijuana metabolites (which can remain in the body for several days after marijuana use) and unspecified “parental protections.”
“I guess a few people don’t believe that the [MPP] initiative goes far enough,” concedes Carlos Alfaro, political director for the Arizona branch of MPP. “However, after reviewing... what we’ve done in other states, not only is this the most viable policy, but it’s the most beneficial for consumers and the industry. They happen to disagree.”
Both sides have been accused of bullying. In August, Safer Arizona posted on Facebook that the organization was hosting a signature collection drive for AZFMR outside the Nature’s AZ Medicines dispensary, in response to rumors that the dispensary – which supports the MPP initiative – was threatening to fire employees if they talked about the AZFMR initiative with customers (a spokesperson for Nature’s AZ Medicines was unavailable for comment). The previous month, AZFMR activists reportedly showed up at an MPP appearance at Mesa sandwich shop Cheba Hut and heckled MPP advocates. Supporters on each side have said they will not vote for the others’ legalization initiative, not even if their own initiative fails to make the ballot.
“[The MPP initiative is] made for the dispensaries, not the people,” says a 28-year-old male medical-marijuana patient who asked to remain anonymous. He’s gathering signatures for the AZFMR initiative and says he will vote “no” on the MPP initiative if it makes the ballot. “If it was made out for the best interest of the people, then yes, I’d vote for it and help with their campaign. If they have to pay people to collect signatures for their initiative, something must obviously be wrong for them not to be able to find volunteers like me to collect freely, like I am for AZFMR. If it’s for the people, the people will come collect freely.”
One of the big differences between the two initiatives is the number of retail licenses that would be allowed. The AZFMR initiative calls for an amount equal to the number of series 9 liquor licenses issued in Arizona, which totals more than 1,600. By contrast, the MPP initiative would allow only up to 10 percent of the amount of series 9 liquor licenses issued statewide, or roughly 160 retail licenses. That number, AZFMR activists say, is close to the number of medical marijuana dispensaries already operating in the state (it’s actually about double; there are currently 88 licensed dispensaries in Arizona). They say existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be given priority for the new retail licenses, and that’s why the majority of dispensary owners in Arizona openly and financially support the MPP initiative. Three of the seven board seats on the would-be new Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control are reserved for dispensary owners. That’s setting up a dangerous precedent, Medar says. “MPP’s initiative transfers the medical marijuana program to that new Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control. That department [will be] run, in part, by medical marijuana dispensary owners. So that would allow people who make the money to also set the rules, and that’s a very dangerous precedent for patient rights.”
“Those medical marijuana dispensary owners could alter the medical marijuana program in their favor, at the cost of patient rights,” Medar continues. “And we actually believe that they will. We don’t have any other reason to believe that they’re doing it to keep medical marijuana consumers out of jail. Their main concern is making money.”
Alfaro points out the MPP initiative would allow an increase in the number of retail licenses, based on demand, in 2020. He says the accusation the MPP initiative would create a dispensary chokehold on the industry is “absolutely not true. When you look at how it’s going to be regulated after the law’s in place – it does give a certain number of licenses, but it’s definitely well more than what medical dispensaries there are already, so there’s definitely going to be a lot of competition in terms of who gets the licenses, and different kinds of backgrounds of people getting them.”
Bottom line, Alfaro says: “We’re bringing it up to a legal level so that people can go into business, people can be consumers, and not get prosecuted by police.”
Alfaro says “we’re more than confident” the MPP initiative will make it onto the ballot in November 2016. “We’re not only shooting for the 150,000 signatures that we need – we’re shooting for 230,000 and more,” he says. “We’re definitely going to get on there.”
Meanwhile, the AZFMR initiative is trying to outgrow its grassroots. Their petitioners are all currently volunteer (MPP has paid circulators), but Medar hopes to raise enough money to change that. “We don’t have the millions that MPP has,” Medar says. “They’ve pledged I think $500,000 from national MPP and the core group of medical dispensaries here has pledged to contribute as much as it takes. So with that being said, they’ve got an unlimited bankroll, and we are actively trying to raise money any way we can.”
The push-back against MPP legalization initiatives isn’t limited to Arizona. Medar says his group has heard from activists in other states where MPP has introduced legalization initiatives, including Massachusetts, and that AZFMR is trying to form a national group with some of the splinter groups in other states. “This is not just an Arizona-specific problem, unfortunately,” Medar says. “We described it as Big Marijuana vs. the Marijuana Consumer Movement. And unfortunately, that’s what it seems to have become.”
This also isn’t the first time a Marijuana Policy Project-penned initiative has met resistance from some of Arizona’s cannabis activists. The rift goes back to 2009, when MPP was pushing Prop. 203, which became Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Act. “In 2009, there was actually a second initiative introduced as well... half of the people wanted to go ahead and fully legalize, right then and there, when we hadn’t even introduced medical marijuana to anyone,” Inman says. “Honestly, it’s kind of the same players this time around... I’ve come up against this for many years. I’m trying to put it behind me, but it hurts because... some of them are good friends.”
Inman wishes everyone could just get along and work together for the greater cause. She says she’ll vote for any legalization initiative that makes it onto the ballot, but thinks the MPP initiative has a better chance. “We know Arizona history. There’s never been a volunteer effort that’s gotten on the ballot,” she says. “And [the AZMFR] folks haven’t produced any positive funding that we can see in our community, for those of us who want to know, ‘Hey, what are the chances of this?’ If there’s a chance, I’ll get behind it. But if there’s not a chance, then we all need to pull together as one, because we do have opposition that doesn’t want this to be legal at all.”
Reefer Madness Redux
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery doesn’t take the legalization of recreational marijuana lightly, but he gets a hearty laugh at the idea that if marijuana were legalized, it would cripple drug cartels and close the black market. “That doesn’t happen,” he says. “We still have a black market for alcohol and tobacco.”
That’s one point Montgomery brings up when speaking out against the legalization of recreational marijuana in any form. He also points to some of the problems in the states that have already legalized recreational marijuana. “In Colorado, their black market exists to this day, and Mexican cartels are trafficking marijuana up into Colorado to take advantage of the quote-unquote ‘legal market.’ The cartels are also now purchasing marijuana being grown in Colorado to then traffic to other states in the mountain region and Midwest and beyond,” Montgomery says. “Even if you want to go back and use Prohibition as an example, let’s look at it as an example of what happened to criminal organizations once alcohol was made legal again. Those criminal organizations did not go away. They transitioned to committing other crimes. And drug cartels are, at their core, criminal organizations. They will not go away just because you legalize marijuana.”
Legalization advocates, however, point to the drop in arrests and lower rates of incarceration for marijuana crimes in Colorado. And they point to the money. The Colorado Department of Revenue recently reported the state’s revenues from marijuana-specific taxes for the 2014-2015 fiscal year topped revenues from alcohol-specific taxes – $70 million, compared to $42 million. “Looking just at Colorado, we have a [commercial] market that’s $700 million plus. It’s expected to be over a billion dollars this year,” Alfaro says. “That’s a billion dollars that’s not going to drug cartels, drug dealers and gang members. It’s going to public education and health care. It’s a much better system, because we’ve ended the failed Prohibition policies. It’s inefficient and counterproductive, just like alcohol prohibition was in the 1930s.”
“Initially, arrests may go down,” Leibsohn concedes, “but I think that ultimately, they’ll have to go up with enforcement. And it takes a while to figure these things out once you legalize them. Things don’t change overnight. But what you already do see in Washington and Colorado is, you do see increased poison control calls. You do see increased accidental ingestion from young people and children and pets. You are seeing everything we don’t want happening at an increased level.”
The fact that both of Arizona’s marijuana legalization initiatives allot a tax percentage to state education programs – to the estimated tune of $40 million a year – doesn’t deter the anti-legalization folks. They say marijuana legalization will lead to increased access for children, which can’t be reconciled with tax revenue for education. “It’s like taxing the arson store and using their money to pay for fire education,” Leibsohn says, adding, “I’m all for more education spending, but do people realize how little $40 million is? It’s half of a percent of our education budget. You’re not gonna buy half a text book for a student in Arizona with that kind of money. It’s less than a drop in the bucket.”
Montgomery says taxes from marijuana sales won’t offset other costs. “If we look at our state’s tax history and collecting revenues from the sale of tobacco and alcohol – something that’s legal and regulated – we don’t take in anywhere near enough revenue to cover the societal impacts of the use and abuse of those substances,” he says. “Specifically, the last fiscal year, we took in a little under $400 million in taxes from alcohol and tobacco. The cost to Arizona alone of alcohol-related crashes was about half a billion. The cost to Arizona for healthcare-related costs due to tobacco use and abuse is over a billion.”
The anti-legal cannabis crusade is gaining traction – and raising money – while the MPP and the AZFMR gather signatures for their respective legalization initiatives and take snipes at each other. Montgomery, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, and Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy are ramping up their fundraising and educational efforts. In late September, a unified body of anti-legalization groups including Arizonans for Prevention, MATFORCE and the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics held a fundraising conference ($50 a ticket, lunch included) titled “Marijuana: The Science and the Experiment,” in which a range of panelists including addiction psychiatrists, pharmacologists and law enforcement from Colorado spoke about the dangers of marijuana and the ills visited upon The Centennial State.
“One of the first things they tried to do in Denver, after Colorado legalized marijuana, was reduce the age [from 21] to 18,” Montgomery says, adding that the THC content of seized marijuana “being trafficked out of Colorado” reflected “anywhere from 20 to 30 percent” of the plant’s psychoactive ingredient.
“The THC content of marijuana today is not your grandfather’s Woodstock marijuana,” Montgomery says. “Then, the THC content was about 3 to 5 percent. Now, it can average 12 to 13 percent.”
Passing on the Peace Pipe
Looking toward the November 2016 election, it seems likely that at least one (maybe both) of the marijuana legalization initiatives will make it onto the ballot. “We assume they’re going to get on the ballot, so we’re not fighting their signature process or their petition process,” Leibsohn says. “You’ll probably see more public activity outside of our office starting in about January, but we’re gearing up now with fundraising.”
Alfaro says the MPP initiative is “definitely on track” to gather enough signatures to make the ballot. “We’re very confident it’s going to get on the ballot, and now it’s really a PR battle to gain Arizonans’ trust.”
Medar thinks the AZFMR initiative has a good chance of making it to the polls too, citing “75,000-ish” medical marijuana patients who largely support it and what he hopes is impending financial support for the campaign from local head shops and even some dispensaries. (Medar cites six dispensaries that back his initiative, as opposed to the 28 behind MPP’s.) In the event the AZFMR initiative does not make the ballot but the MPP’s does, Medar vows to campaign against it. “I will form a campaign to vote ‘no’ on MPP’s initiative and we will try again in 2018,” he says. “And that was not an easy decision to make, because please understand I am a die-hard marijuana activist. I’ve been doing this a long time, and my intentions are very pure.”
In the event both initiatives make the 2016 ballot, the Arizona Constitution dictates the measure that garners the most “yes” votes supercedes the other.
The passage of either initiative is a scenario deemed unlikely by Bill Montgomery, who brings up the fact that Arizona’s medical marijuana initiative, Prop. 203, passed by a mere 4,000 votes. “And there was no real coordinated, widespread opposition to it, either. I think Marijuana Policy Project spent about $700,000, and opponents of that initiative spent less than $30 [thousand]. And it barely passed,” Montgomery says. “Elected officials in Arizona will not let the people down again. We’re going to do our best to make sure that people have accurate information about the potential impact of legalization, as well as accurate information about the true forms of marijuana. The drug legalizers are not going to have a walk through the park.”
Leibsohn concurs. “I don’t expect that it’s going to become law. I think we’re going to defeat them, and defeat them handily.”
Faced with the mounting opposition among the insider friction, Inman says, “I’d love to see all our energies thrown at the right people – these people that are digging their heels in and saying, ‘No marijuana legalization,’ even when they’re looking at the statistics and the good it can do.”
“I believe a united front is imperative,” Inman adds. “I believe we need to quell this ‘No MPP’ voice that’s come out of AZFMR and freely just be very neutral. Whatever gets on the ballot, let’s all vote for it, because we’ve all been working toward this together.”
Marijuana Legalization Initiatives: Tale of the Tape
The Marijuana Policy Project initiative:
• legalizes possession of one ounce of marijuana. Possession of more than one ounce but less than two and a half ounces is a petty offense; possession of more than two and a half ounces is a felony. Possession of any amount for sale without a retail license is a felony.
• allows for an adult to grow six marijuana plants, and for a maximum of 12 plants per household. Cultivation in excess of these amounts by an individual or household is a felony.
• calls for the establishment of a Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control, which would oversee the issuing of licenses and the enforcement of regulations, and take over regulation of the Arizona medical marijuana program from the state Department of Health Services.
• issues an amount of marijuana retail licenses equal to up to 10 percent of the amount of series 9 liquor licenses issued in Arizona, or up to 160 licenses.
• establishes a 15 percent retail tax on marijuana, to go toward state education programs.
The Arizonans for mindful Regulation initiative:
• legalizes possession of one ounce of marijuana. Possession of more than one ounce but less than two and a half ounces is a petty offense; possession of more than two and a half ounces but less than eight ounces is a misdemeanor. Possession of marijuana for sale involving less than eight ounces is a misdemeanor.
• allows for an adult to grow 12 marijuana plants, with no limits per household. Cultivation by an individual involving more than 12 plants, but less than 99 plants, is a misdemeanor.
• calls for the establishment of a Department of Marijuana to oversee the recreational program. The medical marijuana program remains under the purview of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
• issues an amount of marijuana retail licenses equal to the amount of series 9 liquor licenses issued in Arizona (around 1,600).
• establishes a 10 percent tax on marijuana sales, to go toward state education programs.
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