Follow the Money

Supporters of the prop that would legalize recreational mariuana have a lot more money than opponents, but to get to the ballot, they’ll have to survive a court challenge


Backers of a ballot initiative to ask voters to approve the use of recreational marijuana for adults over 21 have a major cash advantage over opponents of the proposition.

In a report filed last week with the Arizona Secretary of State, Smart and Safe Arizona reported having raised more than $3.4 million as of June 30.

“We’re absolutely on target,” said Stacy Pearson of Strategies 360, the political consulting firm that was behind previously successful legalization efforts for Colorado residents in 2014 and again in Alaska the following year. “Funders, both local dispensaries and national names in the business, have committed the resources necessary to get this done.”

After paying for signature gathering, political strategists and other expenses, the group still had more than a half-million left in the bank.

Major donors to the campaign include a variety of medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, including Harvest Enterprises, which has contributed $1.4 million, and the Arizona Dispensaries Association, which has contributed $79,500.

The political committee opposing the proposition, Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, had raised a little over $107,000 by the June filing date. After expenses, only $72,000 remains in the AHPS coffirs to combat legalizing hippie lettuce.

On Tuesday, July 20 the group filed a challenge in Maricopa County Superior Court citing the initiative’s 100-word summary was misleading since THC concentrates are defined as marijuana.

"Cannabis THC is highly concentrated," said Arizonans for Health and Public Safety chair Lisa James. "For example, five grams of marijuana concentrate that they allow is approximately 2,800 doses of pure THC for one person.

The group's lawsuit also argues that Smart and Safe Arizona didn’t properly inform voters that the proposition would change how weed-imparied drivers would be charged because the state could no longer rely on testing for marijuana metabolites to determine if a person is impaired while driving.

"(Smart and Safe) eliminates all current marijuana DUI violations based on the percentage of marijuana impairing metabolites in the driver's system," James said. "That's no longer enough to convict for a DUI."

Critics of marijuana metabolite testing cite the test's unreliability to determine when the last time a person used marijuana since those metabolites can stay in a person's system for weeks or months.

Other complaints James and her fellow plaintiffs cite as reasons they're challenging the initiative: Smart and Safe allows commercial marijuana companies to advertise without restriction; it significantly reduces penalties for underage use; it allows unlimited cultivation for larger companies; and it doesn't tax homegrown cannabis, according to James.

Stacy Pearson, spokesperson for Strategies 360—the firm handling the initiative—dismissed lawsuit is a "Hail Mary" to invalidate their initiative.

"I would call their challenge bonkers," Pearson said. "It's a desperate, last-minute attempt to change the trajectory of this campaign because they know our signatures are valid and the public is behind it. I think they're likely spending all of their limited resources on this Hail Mary. It's tough to predict but they are bound by limited resources and a public that isn't standing with them."

Pearson declined to give an exact number on what the group plans on spending on the campaign to persuade voters to approve the measure, but did say it would be “within seven figures.”

“We’re going to start our paid media programs to communicate with voters that we’re on track to qualify for the ballot,” Pearson said. “We’re going to have a robust and well funded marketing plan.”

The opposition leader also declined to elaborate on the financial lengths Arizonans for Public Safety is willing to go to defeat Smart and Safe Arizona, but said she was confident her group would receive the necessary funding.

In 2016, when opponents narrowly defeated a similar proposition, they raised $6.4 million. But Discount Tire Co. owner Bruce Halle, who quietly donated $1 million to the opposition campaign, died in 2018 and Insys Therapeutics owner John Kapoor, who gave $500,000, is now behind bars after being convicted of participating in a scheme to bribe doctors into prescribing his company’s fentanyl medication, Subsys.

“We feel confident we’ll have enough money to compete and get our message across,” James said. “We feel very confident that we’re going to to be able to rely on having the dollars we need to be successful.”

According to the June 30 state filed campaign finance reports, conservative PAC Center for Arizona Policy is bankrolling James’ group after making two $50,000 donations March and June of this year. The PAC also made two $10,000 contributions to similar anti-legalization efforts in 2016.

So far, polling suggests the public is generally supportive of the proposition. A May poll by political consultants HighGround showed that 65 percent of the public supported legalizing recreational use, while just 25 percent were opposed.

While roughly 70 percent of Democrats and Independents surveyed supported the measure, even 56 percent of Republicans said they were on board with it.

Pearson suggested many who voted no for legalization in 2016 are now willing to lean the other way four years later. She believes issues like the state’s economy and criminal justice reforms are what Arizona voters are most concerned about and Smart and Safe Arizona helps to address those issues.

“Our assumption is that things have only gotten better for our campaign over the course of the last year. The economy is a central concern more now than it was a year ago,” Pearson said. “The highlighted awareness of the racial discrepancies with policy and prohibition is also on people's minds. This initiative addresses both of those issues.”

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