Since 1988, Arizona has some of the strictest cannabis laws in the nation, with all charges starting out as class 6 felonies. Some police departments are so draconian that joints are counted as two separate charges (the cannabis in the cigarette and the cigarette paper itself as paraphernalia). On average, 16,000 people a year are arrested on cannabis charges. The recent sentencing guidelines allow most defendants to avoid prison time, but lengthy jail stays, oppressive SWAT raids and civil forfeiture remain rampant. Democratic state legislators have attempted legalization and defelonization bills in recent legislative sessions to no avail.
Arizona’s medical program, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA), passed in 2010. Though it was slow to start, the AMMA is now considered one of the more stable programs in the country. It began with a citizens’ initiative that passed by one of the narrowest margins ever. With more than 1,600,000 votes cast (more than any other Arizona race that year, including the gubernatorial race), the AMMA only won by 4,100 votes. Part of the issue was internal problems with the Marijuana Policy Project’s (MPP) campaign, another part was widespread concern about weaknesses in the initiative, including high patient card fees and a “25 mile rule” that would severely restrict personal cultivation once the proposed dispensaries opened around the state.
When the state blocked dispensaries from opening during the first two years of the program with a series of lawsuits, an extensive patient community developed complete with farmers’ markets that have since been ruled illegal and raided out of existence. To make matters worse, law enforcement and prosecutors banded together and vowed to stop legalization. Their pro-prohibition PAC, called MATFORCE, was briefly in trouble for attempting to misuse public funds for a political campaign, but it returned the funds and fights on as intensely as ever.
Moreover, the governor’s office and state legislature have vowed to oppose legalization and expansion of the state’s otherwise robust medical program, and Arizona failed to legalize recreational cannabis at the ballot box in 2016. Nine different cannabis measures were on ballots across the country, and the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Proposition 205) was the only initiative to fail, losing by a 51 to 49 vote against it.
Prop. 205 did have its issues, however. Conflict reigned during the drafting process. MPP proposed a new business structure challenging the medical cannabis industry. The industry leaders, who proved to be the main investors in the campaign, revolted and pushed to exclude grow rights. MPP briefly did cut cultivation provisions from one of their drafts, but the activist community raised all sorts of commotion until grow rights were restored. The completed document was filled with compromises that satisfied everyone and no one. Vocal segments of the activist community organized and rewrote MPP’s initiative to include provisions MPP refused to include then filed their ballot measure despite little funding, minimal campaign expertise and limited reach outside their own cannabis communities.
In the end, the MMP-back initiative collected the necessary number of votes, and it appeared on the November 2016 ballot as the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Most polls during the summer showed Prop. 205 losing, and then two new surveys in October showed a jump in support, with legalization claiming an eight- and five-point edge. However, a Data Orbital poll released days before the election showed a surge in Donald Trump support and cannabis opposition, giving prohibition a six-point edge (51 to 45 percent).
Among the people supporting the measure were several medical doctors and former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. The prohibitionist forces—largely bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson, opioid producers, the Arizona Republican Party, mining interests and a food distribution company servicing private prisons—were out in full force making dishonest claims that fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact deemed "mostly false." They also came under criticism for ads that lied about the post-legalization situation in Colorado.
Billy Bennett, a former Education Secretary and Office of National Drug Control Policy chief, wrote an editorial filled with untrue propaganda, including claims that the tax revenue would do little for education. Outside his anti-cannabis activism, the right-wing bureaucrat is famous for a multi-million dollar gambling problem, making massive education cuts, wanting to regulate rap music and once publicly saying, "If you wanted to reduce crime, you could... abort every black baby in this country and the crime rate would go down."
Several new proposals are currently collecting signatures in hopes of making the 2018 midterm ballot. These include the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative, Arizona Legalization of All Drugs Initiative and the Arizona Marijuana Legalization and Regulations Ban Initiative, which would all legalize recreational cannabis. The Arizona Medical Marijuana Expansion Initiative would expand the current medical legislation and increase access (e.g., more dispensaries, more patients, less expansive medical cannabis cards), while the Arizona Industrial Hemp Initiative would legalize the cultivation, possession, processing, selling and buying of industrial hemp containing a maximum of 0.4 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Unfortunately, the legislature passed a new law in 2017 that introduced strict new rules for citizen initiatives that make collecting the necessary number of signatures more expensive and more difficult.
Mikel Weisser is Deputy Director of NORML-Arizona and a current congressional candidate in the state. Photo credit: Unsplash