Could Conservative Arizona Become Next State to Legalize Marijuana?

A nonprofit organization called the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is working to gain support for a referendum that would give voters in Arizona the opportunity to join the marijuana legalization parade. As part of its Arizona-based “Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol,” the MPP submitted its legislative proposal to the secretary of state’s office last summer, and will need to collect 150,000 signatures over the next year or so for the submission to make it onto the November 2016 ballet.

Given its conservative reputation, Arizona seems like an unlikely candidate to lift the legal sanctions against marijuana. And indeed, up until now, the state has had some of the harshest anti-marijuana laws in the country. For example, in Arizona, the possession of just one ounce of pot is treated by prosecutors as a felony, subject to an 18-month prison sentence and up to a $150,000 fine. The latter part of that penalty makes pot arrests a lucrative business for the state, and perhaps explains why 55 percent of the drug arrests in Arizona are for simple marijuana possession.

The state also has a history of using marijuana consumption as an excuse to dole out DUI charges, even in cases where blood tests showed only traces of non-intoxicating chemical compounds. But the law that allowed police officers to hand out DUIs in this indiscriminate manner was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2014, which noted the absurdity of filing DUI charges against drivers with no symptoms of intoxication or impairment. Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 2010, so sick people attempting to drive were actually being arrested in some instances for the terrible crime of following their recommended treatment regimens.

Proving that even the worst ideas won’t go down without a fight, during the last legislative session one representative tried to introduce a bill in the Arizona House that would have re-established the old standards in a more constitutionally-acceptable form. But that effort stalled in committee and was never put to a vote.

Evolving Public Opinion

Despite the efforts of overzealous prosecutors and grandstanding politicians to keep the heat turned up on marijuana users, in keeping with the tenor of the times, public opinion in Arizona has evolved on this issue. A recent poll revealed that 51 percent of the state’s residents support the legalization of marijuana for personal consumption, which has given sponsors of the new ballot initiative much cause for optimism.

The language in the proposal submitted to the Arizona secretary of state’s office calls for a system of production, manufacture and retail sale that would be highly regulated and controlled. The profits collected would be taxed at 15 percent to make sure regulators have the funding they need to do the job without dipping into the public treasury, and additional revenues collected from this tax would go to the state’s Department of Education and Department of Social Services. When the massive amounts of money saved in legal costs associated with the “war on drugs” are factored in, it is clear Arizona’s taxpayers would come out way ahead if marijuana were legalized for recreational purposes in the state.

Too Much Too Soon, or Time to Sing a Different Tune?

Many believe legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, Washington state, Washington, D.C., Oregon and Alaska has given the “movement” to reform drug laws a cache of legitimacy that will make it easier for voters in other states to sign off on this radical change in course. The arrival of medical marijuana may also have helped open people’s minds, albeit in a more indirect way since the step from medicinal to recreational use is still a relatively large one.

Whether legalization’s momentum will carry over to so-called “red” states like Arizona remains to be seen, however. Public opinion matters, but so does tradition, and the ingrained antipathy that so many possess toward illegal drugs of all types may be a difficult hurdle to clear in some areas of the country.

By Nathan Falde

Posted on July 6th, 2015
Posted in News

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