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Pot for the Citizens 

Marijuana Policy Project, Safer Arizona prepare final initiative draft to collect signatures for legal pot initiative for Nov. 2016 ballot

Keep an eye out in the beginning of March for the final draft of a citizens' initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016.

The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project and Safer Arizona have been in intense talks about the language in the measure, in the works since the end of October. Throughout the process, wishes and concerns have influenced sections of the initiative, especially cultivation rights, small business opportunities and more lenient legal consequences.

The latest rough draft was released Feb. 15.

The rules governing legalized marijuana in Arizona could be similar to how alcohol is regulated. Pot would be available to adults 21 and older, you can't drive while impaired, you can't get high at work or at school, or sell to minors, and so on.

What stands out about the initiative, known as the Regulation and Taxation Marijuana Act, is the creation of a department that will solely deal with pot with a director appointed by the governor and state Department of Health Services' staff who have pot experience.

Starting Jan. 1, 2018, that responsibility would shift from the Arizona Department of Health Services to a new Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control. The entity would oversee all things marijuana, including business applications, cultivation licenses, and security measures for transporting pot and ensure all other rules are obeyed.

In the DUI realm, the initiative establishes that there must be proof a driver is impaired while behind the wheel, rather than centering convictions on the mere presence of active or inactive THC metabolites in the bloodstream.

The initiative looks nice to consumers. You won't need a card to buy pot, you can grow six plants (as long as you follow zoning rules set up by the city you live in, and a household gets to grow 12 plants), possess up to 1 ounce, including 5 grams of extracts—Safer Arizona is trying to raise those limits. If those numbers stay the same in the final draft, people found with more than 1 ounce but less than 2.5 ounces, as well as those who smoke in public, will get a petty offense and may have to pay a fine of $300. For the most part, all violations don't result in higher than a misdemeanor, except for "a person who manufactures marijuana by chemical extraction, unless pursuant to a marijuana product manufacturing license," which will get a class 6 felony.

Licensing is strict.

There are plenty of options for people who want to establish a business, but the costs are up there, thousands of dollars up there. Permission to cultivate is $30,000 the first year and $10,000 for the annual renewal; product manufacturers (for instance, a marijuana pastry shop) pay $10,000 to start and then $3,300 the following years; testing facility licenses are $15,000 and $5,000 to renew.

The tax rate is 15 percent on top the state's sales taxes. The costs are likely to be a little pricey, since all marijuana will be tested and labeled.

"Arizona's tax rate is lower than Colorado's and the rationale behind that is Colorado still has continuing black market and people argue it is because taxes are so high," said Mikel Weisser, the political director at Safer Arizona. Colorado's rate is 25 percent, but the revenue is so obscene the state is even considering issuing tax refund checks to residents from that money. Also, part of the funds go to education—a major plus.

The rough draft doesn't clearly specify where the revenue will be spent. Weisser says Safer Arizona is proposing money should go to the Department of Education, Department of Health Services, and law enforcement, "since law enforcement will face a tremendous decrease in their budget with impending cuts in their marijuana enforcement budget," the group says.

Some of the recommendations Safer Arizona has for MPP's final draft are completing a spending formula for the revenue and penalizing unlicensed marijuana businesses with civil penalties rather than criminal ones. There are a few more, and according to Weisser, MPP has been compliant with plenty of Safer's opinions in the past.

When the final draft is out, Safer Arizona will be one of the entities gathering signatures—they need 174,000—so the measure makes it on the November 2016 ballot. Those efforts failed last year, but Weisser is confident this time around.

"Safer Arizona is preparing a series of public events, and we encourage anti-marijuana proponents to challenge us," he says. "I have no anxiety about whether or not we can present a good case of why this war on marijuana is wrong."

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More by María Inés Taracena

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