Amid fears of voter protection, Democrat’s marijuana legalization bill considered

By: - February 17, 2020 12:31 pm

Photo by Paxson Woelber/The Alaska Landmine | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Some Republican lawmakers are sounding the alarm to their colleagues that recreational marijuana legalization efforts are likely to pass at the ballot in November and that the legislature would be wise to consider legalizing the drug to avoid triggering voter-protection measures.

However, the effort may be coming too late to head off a voter-approved law, even if the Republicans who control the legislature wanted to.

“I think the legislature needs to accept the fact that the initiative is going to pass,” Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, told Arizona Mirror

To foster discussion about what it will mean if voters legalize marijuana, Grantham let the Regulatory Affairs Committee, which he chairs, hear testimony Feb. 10 on a Tucson Democrat’s legalization bill that otherwise is unlikely to be considered in the GOP-led House of Representatives.

“This is where Democrats and Republicans agree on something,” he said. “It is really unfortunate when an initiative becomes law and something needs to be changed, for better or worse, and it becomes difficult to change because of the votes.”

Under Arizona’s constitution, any changes to a voter-approved law need a two-thirds supermajority vote in each chamber and must “further the intent” of the voters. Grantham said his decision to hear about Rep. Randy Friese’s bill – but not vote on it – was intended to educate his colleagues about the differences between legalization from a statutory standpoint versus an initiative. 

Friese’s bill, House Bill 2657, would regulate the use of marijuana to adults over the age of 21 and would establish a state marijuana board, among other regulations. 

Friese said he has been working on the bill since last summer and feels a “statutory approach” is better than a ballot initiative, as it would give lawmakers more ability to alleviate concerns about legalizing recreational marijuana, as well as to make changes after the law goes into effect. 

A recent investigation by The Arizona Republic showed that the constitutional protections in place for ballot initiatives can sometimes tie the hands of regulators in regards to Arizona’s medical marijuana law. 

“The whole reason I am proposing this legislation is to give those people some comfort,” Friese said about concerns from anti-legalization advocates who have expressed fears that legalization could lead to an explosion in the industry. “As we step into this space, lets do it in a very controlled way.”

Grantham said a legislative approach to major changes, like legalizing marijuana, makes for better policy. 

“[A] lot of voters who vote on these initiatives don’t understand that there is good that comes out of initiatives and there is bad that comes out of initiatives,” Grantham said before his committee heard testimony on HB2657. 

A ‘tiered system’

Friese’s bill is different from the ballot initiatives collecting signatures in a few key ways. 

Mainly, the ballot initiatives keep the duties of regulating marijuana under the scope of the Arizona Department of Health Services, which currently oversees the state’s medical marijuana program. 

Friese said he thinks this is unfair to the department and sought to find a more equitable solution. The result was what he calls a “tiered system” that creates the State Marijuana Board, which would operate under the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. The health services department would still have a hand in marijuana testing and in medical marijuana, but would not be responsible for regulating recreational marijuana. 

The proposal would create 135 licenses for marijuana wholesalers and 500 licenses for retail sales, which would be released over the course of five years. 

Friese’s bill also includes language that isn’t present in the ballot initiative, such as preventing consumption in public spaces. It also would outlaw deliveries, using marijuana products as an ingredient in restaurants and having an open container of marijuana in a vehicle. 

Stacy Pearson with the Smart and Safe Arizona legalization campaign said while she commends the legislature and Friese for tackling the subject, Friese’s bill has holes in it that are too hard to ignore. 

“No one looks at the liquor store model and says, ‘You know what we need? More of that,’” she said. 

Additionally, Pearson expressed concern on the number of retail stores that would be allowed under the bill. Arizona is home to 172 Taco Bell restaurants, she said, but Friese peoposes 500 retail marijuana stores. 

“Having a footprint that is 3 to 4 times the footprint of Taco Bells in Arizona is a bit much,” she said. 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.