Marijuana is a stigmatizing issue in Arizona. To add to the problems, there are currently two competing initiatives working toward legalization. Both have different approaches, and neither is perfect. Here’s a breakdown of the main points of contention, along with the chances of Arizona being among the next states to legalize cannabis.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol
The Marijuana Policy Project is the largest organization working solely on marijuana policy reform in the United States. Co-founded by Rob Kampia, who also serves as executive director, the MPP advocates taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol.
A 501(c)(4) charitable organization, the MPP was created in 1995 when co-founders Kampia, Chuck Thomas, and Mike Kirshner left the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Kampia was fired by NORML director Richard Cowen, while Thomas and Kirshner quit.
Since then, both MPP and NORML have been instrumental in implementing ballot measures in Colorado (Amendment 64) and Washington (Initiative 502) in 2012. Ballot Measure 80 in Oregon failed that same year. Both measures that passed restricted recreational cannabis use to adults aged 21 and over, included DUI provisions, regulated cannabis like hard liquor (putting the state Liquor Control Board in control), and left current medical marijuana laws in place.
In Arizona, the MPP’s initiative is I-08-2016, which follows similar rules to those already enacted. Under the MPP’s initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol, cannabis will be legalized, but to a very slim extent.
Possession of more than 1 ounce remains illegal, and adults can grow up to 6 plants per adult (12 per household), though localities can prohibit home growing, enact zoning regulations for marijuana establishments, and can limit the amount of marijuana establishments.
Possession of over 1 ounce (or 5 grams of concentrates), cultivating more than 6 plants, and possession for sale remain felonies. A cannabis user can still get a DUI for driving under the influence, public consumption is a petty offense, and anyone currently serving sentences will still need to serve their sentence in full.
In short, the MPP wants to enact the same rules in place in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, though the concessions made were to mold these rules to fit Arizona’s current regulations. For example, Arizona is a zero-tolerance state, and DUI’s are routinely handed out for being under the influence of any drug (though adults over 21 need a .08 BAC for an alcohol-related DUI).
Medical marijuana will be transferred from the Arizona Department of Health Services to the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control, which will oversee all marijuana activity, as opposed to the liquor control board.
When the MPP finally drafted and submitted the initiative to the Secretary of State (final draft was submitted May 11, 2015), the above issues were major points of contention for many of the Arizona cannabis dispensary owners, along with owners and workers of other hemp and auxiliary businesses.
The provisions of this initiative created a rift between these groups and the MPP, which heated up in March 2015, when Rob Kampia threatened Gina Berman, operator of The Giving Tree Wellness Center, with a $10,000 smear campaign over their philosophical differences.
The Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana
After it became clear the MPP wasn’t going to listen to their needs and demands, the Arizona-based cannabis groups split into a separate group, called Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, led by Jason Medar.
AZFMR quickly introduced a second initiative on June 26, 2015, called the Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, which Safer Arizona members are volunteering to collect signatures for.
In this second initiative (I-14-2016), seeks to reduce the marijuana tax by 5%, reduce all cannabis felonies to misdemeanors, raise possession and grow limits, and remove the ability of local municipalities to limit cannabis businesses.
AZFMR introduced this new language to address the pain points experienced in the legal cannabis industries in Colorado and Washington. Many of these points sound great on the surface, but could hold this initiative up in court should it be voter-approved.
One major point to consider is the employee workplace protections in the AZFMR initiative. In the MPP initiative, employers retain the right to prohibit usage of marijuana by their employers and can fire them even for using it outside the workplace. This provision of Colorado’s law has already been disputed all the way up to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that so long as cannabis remains federally illegal, employers reserve the right to forbid its usage by employees.
Like this provision, many of the points AZFMR is addressing are going to remain points of contention until cannabis is federally rescheduled and decriminalized. Because of this, it’s unlikely that any state-approved initiative can fix the problems this new initiative is attempting to fix.
While campaign manager Medar insisted his group isn’t trying to cancel out the MPP initiative when speaking to WeediaTV in June, he vowed in Phoenix New Times that if his initiative fails, the campaign will focus on sinking the MPP initiative, forcing Arizonans to continue waiting for decriminalized cannabis, which will likely be legal in neighboring Nevada and California in 2016.
Activists supporting the group are among the Phoenix area’s most passionate – many of whom are more interested in showing up to MPP meetings to discourage attendees than actually rallying support for their own initiative.
At the Cannabis World Business Congress in Los Angeles, I met Mikel Weisser, the Deputy Director for AZ NORML, who was at one time working with Safer Arizona against the MPP but switched sides recently. He told me he didn’t like the way they run things, so I had to see it for myself.
When I attempted to discuss the issue on the Safer Arizona Facebook page, I received venomous responses from activists who continued insisting if I don’t fully support them I’m taking the side of Joe Arpaio and am anti-cannabis. I was verbally accosted and called a variety of derogatory names by multiple members before being subsequently removed from the group and silenced.
My experience was not unique – though Medar and Safer Arizona’s Dave Wisniewski are relatively stable people, many of their supporters are known to get in people’s faces and be very combative when anyone questions them.
Last Sunday, I drove up to Hempful Farms Cafe in order to see these people face-to-face. While there, I talked to the HFC staff and volunteers from Safer. The ones who were so verbally aggressive online turned out to be nothing more than Internet thugs who avoided talking to me or following through on a $10 bet that I would show up.
Despite the lack of integrity displayed by representatives of the group, I signed their petition and picked up a copy to gather signatures myself. Upon reading through all the documentation, I’m even more confused than I was before.
The Odds of Cannabis Legalization
On one hand, the MPP is absolutely right in that Arizona legalizing cannabis is important to the whole of the nation, regardless of what laws are on the books. Arizona has always been a conservative state (yes, I’m aware it’s now purple in terms of registered voters, but it has a largely Republican government), and trying to pass an initiative we all know will be overturned and rejected by the court is fruitless.
On the other hand, I do still believe in much of what AZFMR is trying to pass – I just can’t stand their inability to reason and need to verbally attack anyone who offers any perspective that differs from the vary narrow focus of what they’re trying to do.
From what I’ve seen of both groups now, it looks as though the MPP initiative will gain the required number of signatures, and these paid workers are very likely to continue gathering signatures in an effort to impede the AZFMR initiative.
When this happens, everyone wearing shirts declaring “Marijuana is safer than (Pharma/Alcohol/Tobacco/etc)” will presumably turn on their own belief system and work against legalizing cannabis for the citizens of Arizona they claim to represent.
At that point, these people will have fully stigmatized the entire electorate, and they may very well be responsible for suppressing the legalization of cannabis in Arizona. The in-fighting within my state threatens to destroy everything we all want, which is an end to the drug war.
I’ll be keeping a very close eye on this issue over the next year and will do my best to keep you up to date. Currently MPP has over 75,000 signatures, compared to about 7,000 for AZFMR. If you live in Arizona and want to get involved, contact both of these groups and sign those petitions. With many hardcore cannabis activists threatening to kill any bill not theirs, there is a very good chance Arizona will still be without legal cannabis in 2017.
Brian Penny is a former business analyst and operations manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work has appeared in Huffington Post, Fast Company, High Times, The Street, Hardcore Droid, BBC, and Intuit’s Small Business Resource.