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Phoenix metropolitan medical marijuana dispensaries brace for 2020 ballot initiative result

Signatures filed reignites renewed interest in legalization pursuit

Posted 7/6/20

If there’s going to be an initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, it may as well have 420,000 signatures to get it on the ballot.

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Phoenix metropolitan medical marijuana dispensaries brace for 2020 ballot initiative result

Signatures filed reignites renewed interest in legalization pursuit


If there’s going to be an initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, it may as well have 420,000 signatures to get it on the ballot.

The number “420” has long been associated with pot-smoking, so sure enough, 420,000 was the number of signatures officials with the Smart and Safe Arizona drive turned in to the state by last week’s deadline.

“It’s an appropriate number for the initiative,” said the group’s spokeswoman Stacy Pearson with a laugh.

The fact the group turned in nearly 150,000 more than required at a time most people are staying home says everything one needs to know about the changing attitudes across the Valley and Arizona toward the use of marijuana.

Just 10 years ago, an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana would have been considered more than a long shot. But now, it would be an upset if all adults at least 21 years old aren’t allowed to toke up this time next year.

“I think this will be the sixth “C” in Arizona,” said Sara Presler of the Arizona Dispensary Association, referring to cannabis joining cattle, climate, copper, citrus, and cotton as the historic main industries of Arizona.

--- Sara Presler

That’s how bullish marijuana proponents are about the future of the drug’s legalization in the state.

The response the Smart and Safe group got in its signature drive already showed the changing attitudes.

By getting an early start around last Labor Day, the group was able to fend off major problems caused by a lack of crowds because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were already in really good shape when the pandemic hit,” Ms. Pearson said. “We took a week to assess how we could do this safely. When it was clear people were ordering French Fries to the door, they’d feel safe ordering democracy.”

Ms. Pearson estimated the group had already amassed 275,000 to 280,000 going into the pandemic --- with another 150,000 or so since mid-March when places really started shutting down across the state.

“This cushion is bulletproof,” Ms. Pearson said.

The state will now start its review process, which puts the measure in limbo for a couple of months. But because the group is confident it has enough valid signatures it has already shifted its focus to campaigning now that signatures have been filed.

“The Dispensary Association and its members have committed the resources it takes to win this,” Ms. Pearson said.

A seismic shift in pot perspectives?

Shifting public opinion polls over the last couple of decades are squarely in the favor of those wanting legalized marijuana in Arizona.

A HighGround poll in the spring found that 65% of Arizonans would vote for the Smart and Safe Arizona Act if it made it onto the ballot this November. And, only a quarter of respondents said they’d oppose the measure.

Jared Deane, the general manager at YiLo Superstore dispensary near I-17 and Thunderbird Road in Phoenix, predicted its chances of passing in November at 100%.

“I would be very surprised and disappointed if it didn’t pass,” he said.
That’s also the feeling of officials at Curaleaf, a dispensary chain in Massachusetts with eight dispensaries in the Valley.

“While we can’t predict the upcoming state changes, we remain optimistic that the state of Arizona will evolve the marijuana program to serve both medical patients and adult-use customers,” said Steve Cottrell, president of Curaleaf Arizona.

Smart and Safe Arizona officials said they’re campaigning just as hard as if every vote counted.

“We’re certainly not taking anything for granted, but Arizona has shifted on this issue,” Ms. Pearson said.

The shifting views him home personally to Ms. Presler.

The former two-term mayor of Flagstaff served from 2008 to 2012, right when Arizona began moving forward with the medical program.

“My own views had changed in time,” Ms. Presler said. “I thought dispensaries should be on the outskirts of town based on my own misconceptions around rhetoric from the failed war on drugs.”

But she is now a medical patient herself and she said it has changed her life. She said she has come around on the issue completely in the last decade.

“This industry provides really good-paying jobs, responsible activities and it’s truly helping people heal and change their lives without opioids or other hard drugs,” Ms. Presler said. “I’ve personally had a transformed view.”

If approved by voters, Arizona would become the 12th state in the country to legalize recreational use of marijuana and the sixth Western state to do so, not including Alaska.

New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, New Mexico, Mississippi and South Dakota also could have a pot law by the end of the year.

“Voters have to decide do they want it sold in a taxed, tested environment or sold on the street corner?” Ms. Pearson said. “Because it’s one or the other.”

The Smart and Safe Act

Here’s what the Smart and Safe Act would do in Arizona:

  • Make legal the possession and use of recreational cannabis for adults 21 years of age or older.
  • Allow those of legal age to grow up to six cannabis plants for personal use at home.
  • Establish about 145 recreational marijuana dispensaries across the state.
  • Impose a 16% excise tax on recreational marijuana sales.
  • Decriminalize many marijuana-related offenses.

If passed, the law would go into effect by April 5, 2021.

Medical marijuana dispensaries would still be able to sell recreational cannabis to adults until the Arizona Department of Health Services issues licenses for recreational dispensaries.

The law would allow medical marijuana dispensaries that obtain a recreational marijuana dispensary license to operate both entities in the same location.
That’s good news to dispensaries like the Curaleaf chain.

“Curaleaf would apply for all eight of our existing Arizona dispensaries to transition to accepting adult-use customers,” Mr. Cottrell said. “It will always remain important to us that we continue serving our current medical patients across the state.”

Some others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We are still awaiting clear instructions on how to apply for the recreational business licenses,” Mr. Deane said.

Ms. Pearson expects all of the current dispensaries to apply for adult use. The Valley dominates the state’s pot market with 82 of state’s 121 dispensaries opened here.

“There will be a conversion process,” Ms. Presler said. “It’ll be mostly administrative. Those who have experience will go through the administrative phase to convert and get approval.”

The initiative would set up a system to add a couple dozen additional “social equity” businesses, which would bring dispensaries to areas not currently served by a medicinal facility.

“It’s a strategic shift to make sure all of Arizona has equal access,” Ms. Presler said.

Dispensary owners don’t seem worried adult use will affect the medical side of the business negatively.

“They should exist as two separate systems,” Mr. Deane said. “Both systems will invite many different needs, each with their own unique solutions. Patients should be given the priority of the two systems.”

Curaleaf, with locations that stretch across the entire Valley, is one of the metro area’s biggest medical marijuana sellers.

“We believe that the Arizona medical market will continue to have a strong and engaged patient base,” Mr. Brady said. “The additional upside of adult-use will be a mostly incremental new business for Curaleaf, along with increased cannabis normalization and acceptance, which benefits the entire industry.”

More things change, more they stay the same

Under the Smart and Safe Arizona initiative, the Arizona Department of Health Services would be able to start adopting rules and permitting recreational cannabis deliveries starting after Jan. 1, 2023.

Minors would have punishments under the law if they’re caught possessing it. Those caught with less than one ounce would be tagged with a $100 fine and sentenced to four hours of drug counseling. A second offense would mean another $100 fine and eight hours of drug counseling. It’ll be a Class 1 misdemeanor for a third offense.

For people previously convicted of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana or six or fewer plants or paraphernalia would be able to have their records expunged starting July 12, 2021.

“We’ve got a failed drug war out there,” Ms. Presler said. “It’s kind of do the right thing for people who are convicted of low-level offenses.”

Smart and Safe officials estimate legalization will generate $3 billion in new revenue during the first 10 years alone to fund community colleges, public safety, public health programs, and roads and highways.

Ms. Presler, who is also the lawyer for Debbie’s Dispensary, which has locations in Phoenix and Peoria, said she’s been intimately involved in the initiative since its original drafting days.

“I believe the voters will see the benefits of it,” Ms. Presler said. “I’m excited about the funding for roads, public safety, and education.”

She said because the Arizona medicinal marijuana program is considered a model system, she believes the adult-use system should run smoothly as well.
“Other states that are starting their programs, they come here to learn about best practices,” Ms. Presler said.

A look back at previous efforts

This isn’t Arizona’s first go-round with a potential vote on whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in the state.

It all goes back to the early days of Arizona’s medical marijuana program with the passage of Prop. 200 in 1996. In that election, voters with 65% approval allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical use.

But despite its support from notables such as former Sen. Barry Goldwater, it was considered ineffective because it was in conflict with federal law at the time.

The next attempt at a medical law came six years later with Prop. 203, which would have allowed patients to possess up to two ounces of cannabis. But only 42.7% of people voted for it.

It would take another eight years before the basis of the current medical law was passed with another Prop. 203. This time voters approved it with just over half [50.1%] saying yes.

That law capped the number of dispensaries statewide to 124. It also allowed patients who reside more than 25 miles from a dispensary to grow their own cannabis.

The next step, the legalization of recreation use, came in 2016 with Prop. 205.
Arizona was attempting to become one of nine states that year to legalize it across the board, but it was the only one that failed. Only 48.7% of voters wanted to make it legal for people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

It would have also used tax money from the sales to pay for the program’s expense and funding public schools and substance abuse programs.
Various media at the time reported $6 million was raised in a campaign to defeat the initiative — and it worked.

Ms. Presler believes the current initiative fixes what failed the first time around in 2016.

Some of those changes are making all packaging childproof, no packaging that’s marketed to children, and nothing that would resemble a kids' candy. Edibles will also be limited to 10 milligrams per serving and only 100 milligrams per package.

“This will free up law enforcement to focus on hard crime and drugs,” Ms. Presler said. “For me, it’s really a no-brainer.”

Editor’s Note: Jason Stone is the editor of the Surprise Independent and can be reached at jstone@newszap.com.