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Arizona Discord

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Arizonans for Mindful Regulation (AZFMR) is one of two groups with competing ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana in Arizona. Realizing that they would not be able to collect enough signatures by July 7 in order to qualify for the November ballot, they have ended their current campaign and committed themselves to trying to get on the ballot in 2018. They have also called for their supporters to help defeat the other marijuana legalization measure likely to qualify for the ballot.

The initiative in Arizona likely to be on the 2016 ballot is backed by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol and is sponsored the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Mason Tvert, MPP’s director of communications, was co-director of the campaign which passed Amendment 64 legalizing marijuana in Colorado and a co-founder of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), a Colorado-based nonprofit focused on public education about the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol. MPP has played a leading role in passing marijuana legalization in Colorado and Alaska, medical marijuana legislation in Arizona and other states, and enacting marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts and other states.

Both proposals legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and imposes regulation and taxes on retail sales, but there are two significant differences.

The proposal by Arizonans for Mindful Regulation would change Arizona law, making possession of up to 8 ounces a misdemeanor, while the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol proposal would leave existing laws in place, meaning possession of over 2.5 ounces is still a felony. Also, the MPP proposal caps retail outlets at 160, while the AZMFR proposal would have licensed as many outlets for marijuana as for liquor stores. Under the MPP proposal, a state agency would issue more licenses, if needed, starting in 2021.

Speaking to Capitol Media Services in Arizona Jason Medar, the organizer of AZFMR said, “We simply couldn’t vote for that,” referring to those involved in what he called the “grass roots” part of the marijuana legalization movement, “the people who smoke the stuff” versus the business owners who sell it.

AZMFR had collected only about 120,000 signatures of the 150,642 required by July 7 to make the November ballot. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol claims it has collected more than 200,000 signatures. One reason the MPP sponsored group has been more successful has been its ability to raise over $1 million in contributions to support their campaign to collect signatures and prepare for the election.

AZMFR’s decision to try and defeat marijuana legalization in 2016 is based on the belief that “we only get one chance to pass a marijuana legalization bill in Arizona, so we must do it right the first time!” Their strategy is to “transition into the ‘Vote NO Campaign’ and then quickly transition back into the AZFMR Marijuana Legalization Campaign in a few short months!”

There were over 16,000 arrests for marijuana possession in Arizona in 2014 and over 1,400 arrest for marijuana sales. Support for a “NO” vote on a marijuana legalization measure on the 2016 ballot would mean joining forces with police and prosecutors, who oppose marijuana legalization and continue subjecting Arizonans to penalties for marijuana offenses.

AZMFR argues that the MPP proposal unduly favors marijuana vendors by limiting the number of retail outlets (as well as providing preferential treatment for 80 existing medical vendors, who automatically receive one of the 160 specified licenses). Another consideration, though, is the political calculation of which type of measure has the highest likelihood of being approved by the voters.

A common concern in the politics of social change has always been whether the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Indeed, the reasoning of holding out for the best public policy would have worked against every marijuana reform enacted over the four-plus decades. Every marijuana legalization measure, both passed and proposed, has flaws.

Otherwise, ask anyone “who smokes the stuff” whether they’d be better with or without legal access to an ounce of marijuana.

This is an issue for Arizona voters to decide, but more is at stake here than how many legal marijuana stores are allowed in the state. Marijuana’s legalization in the United States remains a work in progress. A victory for legalization in Arizona would add momentum to legalization efforts nationwide. A defeat would breathe new life into  the opposition and further encourage prohibition supporters to embrace a divide and conquer strategy to thwart further progress for legalization.

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