High Stakes: Legislative Session Begins With Three MJ Bills Out of the Gate

The 2022 legislative session kicked off on Jan. 10, so it is time once again to start the long slog through the sausage of lawmaking to sine die as legislators trip over one another to prove who’s Trumpiest in the post-reality world.

There are already several bills intended to honor the Great Man, from “President Donald J. Trump Day,” to renaming State Route 260 as the “Donald J. Trump Highway,” both proposed by Sen. Wendy Rogers, one of the wackiest elected officials in the state if not the country.

But we’ll leave orange derangement aside, as we here at the Weedly have enough on our hands tracking legislation, often proposed by prohibitionists seeking to weaken weed laws. (There is the rare legislation intended to create a more equitable cannabis program for Arizona consumers.)

From last year’s failed bill to set limits on THC blood content for DUI—which would be unconstitutional in Arizona, given the language of Prop 207—to Speaker Rusty Bowers’ continuing efforts to paint cannabis users as violent, child-eating zombies, proposed cannabis legislation continues to remind us that the definition of “legal” is often a moving target.

While some bills go off to die in obscurity, or are pulled by their sponsors in the case of the aforementioned DUI bill, others awaken like the undead in a B-grade horror movie, keeping advocates busy in their attempts to protect voter rights.

That can be a pain in the ass for bills that would do some good for citizens who voted for Prop 207 with the belief that it would actually legalize weed and not just make it a vehicle for wealthy lawyers to get even wealthier in the nascent adult-use, recreational market.

Under normal circumstances, the legislative process is an arcane and confusing affair, but this session looks to be particularly contentious and filled with intrigue, as 13 lawmakers have tendered resignations, whether because they’ve had enough of the rancor or they’re seeking higher office.

There is a possibility there could be even more defectors, as nine more lawmakers are running for higher office.

As of Monday, Jan. 17, nearly 700 House bills and more than 200 Senate bills have dropped. Among them are three that would affect cannabis laws should they make it through the process.

The most pressing cannabis legislation proposed in the early days of this session is a House bill intended to address glaring problems with the social equity program that is part of the Prop 207 law.

More on the social equity front

The Arizona Department of Health Services, which oversees both the medical marijuana program and adult-use recreational, spent several months last year writing and rewriting the rules intended to give communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs a piece of the massive economic pie that has come with the legal cannabis industry.

HB 2545, introduced by Representatives Kevin Payne (R-LD21) and David Cook (R-LD8), attempts to right some of the wrongs, by not allowing recipients of social equity licenses to sell the license within 10 years. If they do, the license would have to go to another individual who qualifies for the program.

As the bill works its way through the process though, ADHS is preparing to have the lottery that will decide who among the 1,500 applicants will get the “golden tickets” worth at least $10 million each. That could happen as soon as early February.

Social justice advocates across the state have attempted to get ADHS to suspend the program until more equitable rules can be written (there is a lawsuit to that end making its way through the courts), but there are several problems with this effort, according to Julie Gunnigle, the former Arizona NORML political director.

“On its face, it looks like a good rule, but social equity advocates want a complete rewrite,” she said. “The licenses should belong to the communities most directly affected by the war on cannabis, and not individuals who might be tempted to sell out to the big players.”

Gunnigle said that one of the program’s biggest failings is that there is no funding source associated with it, which opens the door for big operators to game the system.

HB2545 also does not specify any consequences for non-compliance and, given the small window of time before the lottery, is not an emergency bill. The licenses might already be dispersed by the time it becomes law.

If it passes.

“It’s a noble call, but it doesn’t address the core issues,” Gunnigle said. “The true grift is in the way the management contracts are written and it doesn’t address that. If this bill passes, it would incentivize people to sell their licenses before the law even takes effect.”

Advertising bill returns

HB2082, sponsored by Joanne Osborne (R-LD13), would not allow dispensaries to offer samples to customers, but also brings back an unpopular attempt to stifle dispensary advertising.

This one is a reprise of a bill submitted by former Tucson Rep. Randy Friese that severely limits advertising and event sponsorship by dispensaries and can be seen as another effort to keep legitimate cannabis businesses at arm’s length from the “free market” other types of businesses enjoy.

While not as Draconian as HB2809, HB2802 has some common-sense elements, such as not selling to customers who are obviously intoxicated, or not allowing free samples for on-site use. There are also specific limits on advertising to individuals under the age of 21 and within certain distances for churches, schools etc.

The real harm comes from limits on contributions to events that allow cannabis dispensaries to become more integrated into their communities. Some contributions would be allowed, albeit without “brand acknowledgement” that could benefit the company making the contribution.

Prime Leaf CEO and co-founder Brian Warde said he knows about the bill, which could be introduced to its appropriate committee as early as this week, and believes there would be unintended consequences should it become law.

“As an organization that has been civically minded since 2014 and has a history of supporting the schools, arts and athletic events in the area, we have concerns about limits being placed on how we can help the community,” he wrote in a recent email. “While our contributions have always been appreciated by the entities that we help, the Prime Leaf’s ability to give has been particularly important throughout the COVID pandemic, which has severely and negatively impacted a number of live events. Contributions like ours have allowed groups to continue operations and serve our community, which we look forward to doing for years to come. We feel like the restrictions outlined in the bill are an unnecessary and problematic overreach.”

Given the bill is still in its infancy, Warde and other dispensary owners, including members of the Arizona Dispensary Association, are following its progress and will likely meet with Osborne to give input and try to reduce the damage that could be done.

Autism and PTSd as qualifying conditions

HB2260, introduced by Representatives Espinoza (D-LD19) and Andrea Dalessandro (D-LD2), seeks to add autism spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans, as qualifying conditions for an Arizona medical cannabis certification.

The bill would allow a pediatrician to prescribe medical cannabis to youths under the age of 18 under strict guidelines and also help destigmatize cannabis use for PTSD among U.S. veterans.

This bill is a reprise of HB2154, which died in the 2021 session. 

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