Arizona voters are taking a good hard look at legalizing the adult use of marijuana this November. But the fight this fall has a history—one that goes back six years, when the state gave the OK to medical marijuana.
In 2010 Arizona voters approved a medical marijuana initiative—but only by the whisker of a desert bobcat, 4,340 votes, which amounted to three-tenths of one percentage point.
The program’s main opponent, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, sued to stop its implementation in state and federal courts. He lost, of course, but did manage to delay things for more than a year. The state legislature did what it could to slow implementation as well.
Finally instituted, the medical marijuana program serves 100,000 patients, through one hundred dispensaries, which sold more than 38,000 pounds of marijuana in 2015.
The 2010 campaign for medical marijuana was funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, a well-heeled Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. It faced almost no opposition. Montgomery, along with then-Gov. Jan Brewer held some last ditch press conferences advocating for the defeat of the ballot measure, but campaign finance reports show they spent less than $25,000, compared to the nearly $800,000 spent by MPP.
For those with a strong interest in keeping marijuana illegal, lessons were learned.
This year, they have geared up to prevent voters from legalizing adult use of marijuana on this conservative bastion, even in the face of shifting attitudes and changing laws across the country.
Montgomery has teamed up with another county prosecutor, Sheila Polk, to oppose the recreational marijuana initiative, and they’ve recruited political allies, like Gov. Doug Ducey; the state’s Republican Party chairman, Robert Graham; the state chamber of commerce; a number of Republican state lawmakers and local business owners.
The pair prioritized fundraising. As of late August, the opposition campaign had raised about $950,000, mostly from traditional Republican financing heavyweights like Randy Kendrick, wife of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, and Jim Click, owner of several automobile dealerships, and the state chamber of commerce. The anti-marijuana campaign even got some help from local from alcohol distribution and wholesalers.
In just the last six weeks, however, the opposition has doubled their warchest, largely with the help of a half-million-dollar cash contribution from Insys, the pharmaceutical company that makes the powerful opioid Fentanyl. Insys revealed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings that they are developing a synthetic THC compound, whose sales they believe would be hindered by marijuana legalization. The opposition also recently got an enormous $250,000 contribution from Ernie Garcia, the owner of DriveTime, which sells cars to people with bad credit. The company’s business model involves a high percentage of repossessions and brutal collection procedures, which resulted in a massive $8 million fine in 2014 from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
A cascade of messages, all aimed at scaring voters into rejecting the measure, have been offered by the opposition campaign. Some of their claims are based on cherry-picked facts and willful ignorance, others employ logical acrobatics to lead to the conclusion that law enforcement will be unable to enforce intoxicated driving laws under the recreational system.
A main claim by the opposition is that the legalization of marijuana will endanger children, which they say is supported by the fact that some edibles come in candy form. Because marijuana dispensaries sell THC-laced gummy bears, brownies and chocolate bars, these will inevitably end up in the hands of children, they say. The opposition goes so far as to claim marijuana edibles are marketed to children. The claim is refuted by evidence collected by the Colorado Health Department, which shows teen and childhood marijuana use has remained unchanged since legalization there.
Because Arizona’s proposed system, like Colorado’s, would send much of the tax revenue from legal marijuana sales to funding education, the opposition has made the assertion that “Denver schools got nothing,” which is a distortion of how school bonds work in different parts of the state.
Montgomery has more recently developed a notion he’s been peddling, that it will be impossible to prosecute drug DUI laws in Arizona if the measure is passed, because it states that the sole presence of marijuana metabolites in a person cannot be used to charge a person with DUID, even though the measure states clearly that it does not legalize the operation of a vehicle while under the influence of marijuana.
“Unlike what we do with alcohol, we’re never going to be able to have a per se limit, given the restrictive nature of the language in this initiative,” Montgomery said in a recent debate held by The Arizona Republic. “We do that with alcohol. There is a per se limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration or higher. No other evidence is necessary.”
To be clear, the measure requires impairment, not the presence of marijuana metabolites that can remain for weeks after use, to be demonstrated to charge a person with DUID. Backers of the measure point out that with a three-quarters vote in the state legislature, the Arizona can establish a threshold for establishing DUID, but that the presence of marijuana metabolites alone cannot be reason enough to prosecute someone.
In a recent ad released by the opposition, correlation is confused for causation on a number of issues, such as fatal driving accidents where marijuana was involved going up in recent years in Colorado. The number has risen from 8 to 17 between 2013 and 2014. The ad also points out that teen use of marijuana is highest in the country, which has been the case for a long time, going back before legalization.
The opposition even says that increased potency of marijuana is a reason to keep it outlawed, without giving any consideration to the concept of titration or dosage.
The pro-legalization campaign has also just begun advertising as well, making claims of their own on the same topics. Their recently launched TV ad argues that teen use of marijuana in Colorado has not increased, and that in the most recent fiscal year, $40 million of tax revenue has been raised for schools in Colorado.
The effort to pass the legalization is led by the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary, J.P. Holyoak. He and Montgomery have faced off in a handful of debates and forums on the legalization question, where each have stuck to their main argument. Montgomery claims that children will be harmed and that he won’t be able to prosecute DUID laws. Holyoak claims that prohibition is a failure and that by legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana sales, the illegal market, along with the crime that always accompanies a black market, will be diminished, even if black markets cannot ever be entire wiped out.
“There’s a black market for alcohol today. I have no idea where to go buy moonshine, if I wanted it today, but I do know that it exists,” Holyoak said at the same Arizona Republic debate. “I think there’s a point in time where people won’t know where to find illegal marijuana in the future.”
Recent polling on the issue is sparse. A conservative leaning-pollster found opposition at 50 percent. But the state’s most respected poll, the Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll, found support at 50 percent and opposition at 40 percent, with about 10 percent of voters undecided.
Election prediction markets give the measure roughly 70-30 odds of passing.
The campaigns are amid the most important part of the election cycle, as early ballots will be mailed to voters in the first week of October. Both sides are expected to spend heavily on advertising from now until election day, and more debates between Holyoak and Montgomery are slated over the next several weeks.
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