The People’s Weed

Why can’t advocates of legal weed get along with each other?

In an ideal weed-topia, all marijuana advocates work together to accomplish the ultimate dream: abolishing prohibition. But because the world is an imperfect place, several groups in Arizona have split up into at least half a dozen initiatives—with similar but different demands—campaigning for voter support.

Most of them are going nowhere, but the two measures that have gathered traction are the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, backed by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, and the underdog Phoenix group Arizonans for Mindful Regulation.

Both initiatives would legalize the use of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. As far as other details go, such as the licensing structure and home cultivation rights, to say that these two groups don't see eye-to-eye is a blatant understatement.

When the campaigns were getting underway, organizers from both camps collaborated in writing a ballot measure, but after months of walking on eggshells around each other, CRMLA and AZFMR parted ways. The latter claims the MPP-backed initiative that was filed in April 2015 was nothing like what the two groups had discussed because it was nowhere near a middle ground for consumers and medical marijuana dispensary owners.

AZFMR advocates have argued that MPP's initiative is only about taxation and regulation, not true legalization and decriminalization. They say that the MPP-backed initiative will go so far as to change the state's medical marijuana program by handing it over to the newly-created Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control from the hands of the Arizona Department of Health Services, and create a monopoly that will aid a select group of rich medical marijuana dispensary owners to get even richer

"In the end, the initiative they filed showed us that they really did not want to work with the consumer community," says AZFMR's campaign leader Jason Medar. "They basically wrote the initiative that protected the medical marijuana dispensary owners, they are the people paying for the initiative

When the Weekly spoke with CRMLA chairman J.P. Holyoak during a recent visit to Tucson, he declined to discuss any issues related to the "other campaign."

With AZFMR, nearly all weed-related violations would lead to a misdemeanor. In MPP's case, for instance, possession of more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana remains a felony, but that's an improvement the status quo in Arizona, where most weed possession charges are felonies.

"[Felonies] stick with them their whole lives," Holyoak says. "Try getting a job if you have a felony on you record, try renting an apartment or doing anything when you have a felony on you record. You don't get to participate, and that is the problem. It is a social justice issue."

But AZFMR backers say it is time to push for an initiative that will protect consumers on all fronts and prevent any more people from going to prison over a plant.

"We can't tell people it is legal, and have people sign the petition to legalize, but keep it criminalized," says Jason Hein, AZFMR's statewide campaign coordinator.

Then there's the whole black market mess. Holyoak says his initiative will address unregulated sales without the necessity of handing out retail licenses left and right. In total, there would be about 160 licenses issued if the CRMLA measure passes. But Medar says the other campaign's tight licensing structure, such as medical marijuana dispensary owners getting an advantage when it comes to landing a license, do very little to address the black market.

"We can't end the black market unless we open up the licenses and we decriminalize," Medar says. "After months of negotiating [with CRMLA], the real answer for why they did not include decriminalization is because decriminalization lowers the cost or marijuana on the streets and on the retail sales as well, and they want to be able to sell marijuana for $400, $500 an ounce. And it was about this time that we learned these are greedy savages who only care about money and don't give a shit about [medical marijuana] patients and consumers. They underestimated the consumer effort. Here they thought that we were just a bunch of dumb stoners who didn't know anything, surprise ... or not ... we know a thing or two."

In the political realm where money talks—CRMLA's finance report ranks past the $1 million mark vs. AZFMR's four-figure checking account balance—it is fair to say that CRMLA has a big advantage when it comes to making the ballot.

The CRMLA initiative has about 180,000 sigs, thanks to paid staff they've hired specifically to focus on signature-gathering.

By comparison, AZFMR has collected roughly 100,000 signatures, according to Medar, who says his effort has been completely volunteer-based.

Both need at least 150,642 signatures by July 7, but plan to gather more than 200,000 (MPP wants 230,000) to be prepared when some signatures are found to be invalid.

There are still a few months to go but Holyoak is confident their MPP-backed initiative will make the ballot.

Medar says he still doesn't know whether his effort will have enough signatures to get on the ballot. In the case they don't and MPP's initiative does, Medar is promising to launch a nuclear campaign against the MPP initiative. They are certain that without the AZFMR fan-base support, the CRMLA measure will crash and burn on Election Day.

Thrown into the mix is the anti-legalization group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy—a collaboration between business and education representatives, as well as parent and substance-abuse awareness groups. The effort is spearheaded by chair Seth Leibsohn, a radio host and writer. Leibsohn says the MPP-backed initiative is a legal mess that would create a monopoly and profit from a dangerous substance. The group, which has about $90,000 in campaign money, is gearing up to fight hard up until November.

"Right upfront you notice this initiative [MPP's] is drafted by an industry that is trying to protect itself," Leibsohn says. "[It] creates a whole new governmental commission, they establish a new tax, it is more government."

As far as the potential revenue for schools that could come from taxing marijuana—an approximate $40 million annually, according to MPP—he says Gov. Doug Ducey is already taking care of education funding through Prop 123, by taking money from the state land trust fund, will settle a years-long lawsuit against the state Legislature and bring $3.5 billion to the education budget over the next decade.

"This is telling children they should smoke marijuana like alcohol," Leibsohn says. "Look at all the problems we have with alcohol abuse. Marijuana use is relatively low, alcohol is used by about 50 to 60 percent of the population, why would you want to make a small problem a large problem? It makes no sense."

Here's a summary of what each initiative would unfold should voters approve in November.

Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol

• The initiative allows adults 21 years of age and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. You can smoke weed in the privacy of your home, and purchase it from a licensed retailer. You can also grow up to six plants in an enclosed, locked space. No more than 12 marijuana plants can grow in the same household.

• Cities and counties are allowed to impose limits on where and when marijuana businesses are allowed to operate. They can also prohibit home growing if it is considered a nuisance or dangerous. Localities can also enact zoning regulations for marijuana establishments.

• The measure would enact a 15 percent tax on retail marijuana sale that will be used in the implementation and enforcement of recreational weed regulation. Any additional marijuana tax revenue will be allocated thus: 40 percent to school maintenance and operation costs; 40 percent for full-day kindergarten programs; 20 percent to the Arizona Department of Health Services for substance abuse awareness.

• Existing penalties for possession of more than one ounce of marijuana or cultivation of more than six plants is a felony. And it is completely illegal to sell any amount of weed without proper business license. Driving under the influence of marijuana will also remain illegal, but a person should not be penalized merely over the presence of metabolites or components or marijuana.

• An employer may establish his or her own workplace rules regarding employees consuming weed.

• The Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control will oversee the licensing system—accept, deny and/or renew license applications—and enforce the rules stipulated in the initiative. The governor would appoint the director and seven commission members—four of whom cannot directly or indirectly have financial interests in the marijuana industry.

• The medical marijuana program would be transferred from the Arizona Department of Health Services to the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control.

• The amount of retail licenses available would equal up to 10 percent of the amount of series 9 liquor licenses that have been issued in the state, which adds up to about 160 statewide.

• Sales of weed to people under the age of 21 are prohibited.

Arizonans for Mindful Regulation

• Adults 21 and over can use, possess and purchase marijuana from a licensed retailer. An adult can also grow 12 weed plants, without a limit on the amount of plants that can be cultivated per household, as long as it is under 99.

• The initiative allows a licensed marijuana cultivator to sell marijuana, as well as marijuana plants, to a licensed marijuana retailer. A licensed marijuana retailer can then sell marijuana and marijuana plants to consumers. About 1,800 licenses could be issued with this measure, which is about equal to the amount of series 9 liquor licenses that currently exist in the state.

Marijuana sales are taxed at 10 percent.

• An adult is allowed to possess 1 ounce of any form of weed, including marijuana concentrates, and more than 5 grams in concentrated marijuana, such as oils. Criminal penalties for possessing more than 1 ounce of marijuana but less than 8 ounces are reduced to misdemeanors instead of felonies. The same goes for consumers found with more than 12 marijuana plants but less than 99.

• The measure clarifies that mere presence of weed metabolites doesn't equal impairment and doesn't equal a DUI. • An employer is not required to allow marijuana possession or consumption in the workplace, but an employer may not fire, refuse to hire, or penalize an employee for testing positive for marijuana components.

• The initiative gets rid of language that makes it a crime to grow weed without a property owner's permission. A property owner is still allowed to prohibit marijuana cultivation on their property, but if a tenant violates that agreement it is treated as a violation of the lease and not a violation of state law.

Cities and counties are not able to prohibit cultivation through zoning regulations.

• The initiative creates the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control, a governmental entity made up of a marijuana commission and the office of the director. The governor gets to appoint the director of the department, as well as the seven commission members. The commission members cannot directly or indirectly financially benefit from the marijuana market. With the AZFMR measure, this department would not impose a limit on the number of licenses available and issued for marijuana cultivators, distributors and testing facilities.

• As far as licensing fees: There is a one-time $5,000 fee for any application. A retail license will cost $20,000 with a renewal free of $6,600. A marijuana product manufacturer license is $15,000, and you can renew it for $5,000. And a distributor needs a $10,000 license with a renewal cost of $3,300.

• You wouldn't be able to smoke weed while operating a vehicle, while on school premises or at work. Also, if you have more than eight ounces of weed in your possession, you'd get slapped with a class 5 felony. If you have more than the allowed one ounce but less than eight, you'd get a class 1 misdemeanor. Growing more than 99 plants would be a class 5 felony. And sales to anyone under age 21 would be prohibited.