Lobby Hobby: Arizona NORML Goes to Phoenix To Advocate for Good Marijuana Bills

Now that adult-use recreational marijuana has been legalized and we inhale the smoke of freedom, we might take for granted how regulation comes about. But when the sausage of cannabis laws is being made, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is there watching the grinder, advocating for constituent-friendly legislation and against laws that ultimately hurt the cannabis-using public.

Despite the passage of Prop 207 legalizing adult-use, there is still plenty of work ahead for the organization that has "provided a voice in the public policy debate for those Americans who oppose marijuana prohibition" since its founding in 1970.

The state chapter of NORML, along with Tucson-based Southern Arizona NORML, recently completed its annual February lobbying event that featured a new twist in the COVID world: Instead of a day of in-person lobbying, NORML representatives, constituents and volunteers carved out a week for a series of Zoom meetings with legislators to lobby on behalf of or against three bills that were making their way through the legislative process.

"Some of those offices are really small, and you're really cramming people in," said Southern Arizona NORML executive director Mike Robinette. "We didn't want to put volunteers, constituents or anybody from Southern Arizona NORML or NORML at risk relative to COVID so we decided early on to conceptually shift and try to do something virtually. That evolved into what we eventually called lobby week."

NORML organizers were pleased to discover that scheduling was easier, there was increased participation and, given the past year of working from home and sheltering in place, everyone was experienced at Zoom meetings.

"It was serendipitous in the fact that we discovered that it was so much more effective to do it virtually that I don't think we'll go back to an in-person lobby day," Robinette said.

Lobby week ended on Feb. 12, and throughout the week NORML board members and volunteers attended more than 50 meetings with Arizona state legislators. The meetings focused on three pieces of legislation, HB 2298, HB 2084 and HB 2154, as well as its "mirror bill" SB 1209.

HB 2298 would provide grants for medical marijuana clinical trial research with funding from the state's Medical Marijuana Fund. The bill would also shield researchers from liability and allow them to use Arizona-grown cannabis, instead of "ditch weed" from the University of Mississippi they must legally use. The bill was introduced by Representative Kevin Payne (R-21) and would allow researchers to study the safety and efficacy of cannabis and how it interacts with prescription drugs.

A similar research bill put forth by House Speaker Rusty Bowers focuses on marijuana use that correlates with violent behavior or schizophrenia. NORML does not support the bill and is trying to get it amended to create better legislation.

"We support a broad and extensive research bill that doesn't limit the topics on research nor create an inherent bias relative to that research," Robinette said. "Therefore, we'd like to see 2024 amended to support research into myriad topics regarding marijuana and its safety and efficacy.

HB 2084—reported in last week's Weedly column—died an unceremonious death when its sponsor John Kavanagh (R-23) pulled it from the agenda.

The bill established a 2 nanogram/milliliter blood concentration that would have gone against the intent of language in Prop 207 that states prosecutors must demonstrate a driver is "actually impaired to the slightest degree" before they can be convicted of a DUI. Prop 207 does not allow legislators to establish a "per se" limit until there is scientific consensus and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified what that limit should be.

HB 2154 and SB 2298 are mirror bills that would add autism to the list of qualifying conditions to obtain a medical marijuana card, joining at least 15 other with similar provisions. HB 2154 was introduced by Rep. Diego Espinoza (D-19), while Sen. Juan Mendez introduced SB 2298 (D-26).

In other legislative news, SB 1646, a marijuana testing bill that would have fined Arizona testing facilities that could not complete tests in a seven-day window, was dead on arrival and a similar bill, SB 1647, that had less stringent deadlines was also killed in a 3-6 vote in committee.

SB 1647 was supported by the Arizona Dispensary Association and represents a legislative effort to avoid cannabis shortages due to testing backups that may be on the horizon.

ADA Executive director Sam Richard said that even though SB 1647 has been defeated, his organization is dedicated to finding a solution that will be amenable to all stakeholders.

"A lot of people are worried about shortages and there are a lot of different opinions of why we're in this mess," he said. "We're 100% committed to creating a vehicle that will work for all stakeholders and to get that work across the finish line."

Be sure to vote in this year's Cannabis Bowl! 
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