Cannabis Campaign Competition

Republican state officials are now thinking maybe the Legislature should legalize recreational marijuana

Marijuana leaf.
Marijuana leaf.
As the political committee Smart and Safe Arizona prepares to unveil a new 2020 ballot proposition to legalize recreational cannabis in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich are floating the idea of instead asking state lawmakers to decriminalize adult use of marijuana.

The top Republican state officials say it may make more sense for the state Legislature to create the framework for legal recreational use because once voters pass an initiative, lawmakers are limited in how they can tinker with it. But establishing details of a legal marijuana marketplace—including distribution of cannabis, how dispensary licenses will be distributed, levels of taxation and more—is a job better suited to lawmakers than voters, according to spokesman Ryan Anderson.

"The initiative process can create unintended public policy consequences that often make it difficult to address specific challenges that may develop over time," Anderson said.

But industry representatives remain skeptical that there will be enough support among lawmakers to get a bill passed during the upcoming 2020 session before voters have a chance to vote on a ballot proposition in November 2020.

"There's no real desire by the legislature to tackle this issue," said Tim Sultan, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association. "So I don't anticipate any legislative cannabis reform bill."

Sultan said the organizers of the 2020 ballot proposition—the Arizona Dispensaries Association (ADA), political consulting firm Strategies 360 (the firm hired by the ADA to write the legislation) and various dispensary owners/industry professionals—are confident they will avoid the pitfalls they faced in the unsuccessful 2018 ballot effort and win over voters next year. They expect to roll out their proposal later this month.

"We've incorporated input from all stakeholders... legislators, patients, advocacy groups, unions, etc," said Sultan. "The voter initiative has the support of a wide swath of stakeholders from all sides... and it's got momentum."

But it's entirely possible that even if they themselves do not pass a new law legalizing recreational use, state lawmakers could put a competing proposition on the ballot to cloud voters' minds. In that case, the measure that gets the most votes wins.

Ironically, the limits on altering a voter-passed proposition that creates the problems that Brnovich sees with the legalizing recreational cannabis through the initiative process springs from an effort two decades ago to allow for medicinal use of marijuana.

In 1996, when voters passed an initiative to allow cannabis and other schedule I drugs to be prescribed by doctors, the legislature gutted the law, essentially blocking it from taking effect.

What came about two years later was a constitutional amendment that prohibited lawmakers from repealing or altering legislation passed by voters through an initiative, unless the changes are passed by three-fourths of the Legislature and furthers the original intent of the proposition. ■

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