Campaign to legalize recreational pot in Arizona launches for 2020 ballot

By: - August 9, 2019 2:25 pm

Photo by Chuck Grimmett | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana use in Arizona officially kicked off, with a number of changes aimed at alleviating the concerns that helped sink a similar effort in 2016.

Smart and Safe Arizona filed its citizen initiative language with the secretary of state on Friday. The initiative would allow adults who are at least 21 years old to buy and possess up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use, the amount that would have been permitted by a 2016 proposal that lost at the polls by just 3 percentage points.

But the campaign is highlighting a number of changes from the previous initiative that it hopes will aid its passage.

Most notably, the new initiative gives employers the ability to prohibit use by employees, said Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the campaign.

In 2016, Proposition 205 did not give employers the ability to prohibit marijuana use by their employees. That generated fierce opposition from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which contributed heavily to the campaign against Prop. 205. 

Gov. Doug Ducey, a close ally of Chamber, personally raised $5 million to defeat the measure.

“I think the Chamber and the executive branch are going to see a much more thoughtful policy. I certainly can’t predict what their next move is going to be, but I’m certain that a number of the issues … raised in 2016 have been addressed,” Pearson said.

Another major concern in 2016 was what critics said were insufficient regulations barring people from driving under the influence of marijuana. Pearson said the new initiative makes it “abundantly clear” that driving under the influence remains illegal. The initiative states that driving, flying or boating “while impaired even to the slightest degree” is prohibited.

Furthermore, Pearson said the initiative includes new protections against marketing marijuana-based products that resemble or imitate foods and drinks marketed to children. That includes products like gummy bears or worms. The new initiative bars products “that resemble the form of a human, animal, insect, fruit, toy or cartoon.” 

And the initiative would prohibit smoking marijuana not only in public buildings, but in open public spaces like parks and sidewalks.

“I think anyone who’s been to the boardwalk in California over the last couple of years can attest that this is important,” Pearson said.

Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, said the organization hasn’t had time yet to vet the language and doesn’t yet have a position on the initiative. He said employers’ inability to regulate marijuana in the workplace was the Chamber’s biggest concern with the 2016 initiative, but not the only one, and the organization has broader worries about “legalization’s societal effects.”

“Everyone knows where the business community stood on the issue of legalization in 2016. The proponents of legalization will have to clear a high bar to convince employers not to oppose legalization again in 2020,” Taylor said. “With that said, we recognize that this is an evolving issue, and so we will look at this language again with fresh eyes and make a determination as to our position.”

Recreational marijuana would be subject to a 16-percent excise tax, which the campaign said would generate about $300 million annually for community colleges, public safety, public health programs and infrastructure. The Department of Health Services would receive $20 million per year for prevention, substance abuse treatment, mental health and other programs.

The number of licenses to sell recreational marijuana would be limited based on the number of pharmacies that are licensed in the state. The Department of Health Services would be authorized to issue one marijuana permit for every ten pharmacies in Arizona. 

Smart and Safe Arizona must collect 237,645 valid signatures by July 2 in order to qualify for the 2020 general election ballot. Pearson wouldn’t say how much money the campaign expects to raise, but Tempe-based Harvest Enterprises Inc. a massive cannabis enterprise, has already contributed at least $300,000. 

It remains to be seen what kind of opposition the campaign will attract, and whether Ducey and the Chamber will work as hard to defeat the initiative as they did its 2016 iteration.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich in July told Capitol Media Services that he would prefer that the legislature legalize marijuana, rather than leave it to a ballot initiative. That’s because any law approved by the voters is subject to the Voter Protection Act, a provision in the Arizona Constitution that it makes nearly impossible to amend. The act requires a three-fourths vote in the legislature to change a voter-protected statute, and any changes must further the voters’ intent. 

Taylor, too, warned of the perils of legislating at the ballot, saying, “Unintended consequences are not easily remedied by the legislature.” 

When faced with a choice between legislative at the ballot box or the legislature, Taylor said the Chamber will generally choose the legislature. But the Chamber is not supportive of a legislative effort to legalize marijuana, he said.

The Ducey administration did not respond to requests for comment.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”