MMJ: Cloudy Complaints

Cannabis advocates should recognize that even if they don’t think the proposed ballot prop is perfect, it will let people avoid jail time for smoking weed

The safe and smart arizona adult-use cannabis initiative hasn't even made the ballot yet, but whispers of discontent are spreading through the ranks of die-hard cannabis users.

Well, they've always been there. They're the same whispers that had a hand in the narrow failure of Prop 206 in 2016 because they were dissatisfied with the oligarchical structures of the proposed legal market.

Last time, concerns brewed mostly over the idea of a "marijuana commission" and the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control, and an unclear fate for the medical program.

While those regulatory structures are thankfully absent from this proposition, power seems concentrated in different hands.

Somewhat quietly, just before Arizona went into lockdown, Harvest Health and Recreation bought Arizona Natural Selections, netting them four new dispensaries for a total of 15 in Arizona.

Other national brands like Curaleaf and MedMen have also been snatching up licenses, not just in Arizona, but around the country.

Harvest holds the most by far with 142 licenses in 17 states, according to Motley Fool. Green Thumb Industries is second with 89, and MedMen and Curaleaf have 86 and 70, respectively.

This likely isn't what Arizonans had in mind when they decided to pass the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act in 2010 with non-profit dispensaries. But to paraphrase Ian Malcom: Capitalism finds a way.

Even though the law technically limits the number of licenses held by a single entity, the big players have formed management companies to operate (and profit from the success of) dispensaries while cutting various deals with license holders, whether it be board seats or a monthly check.

While the Safe and Smart Arizona Act does distribute 26 additional "social equity" licenses, what's 26 compared to the 131 already floating around the state? How many of those will end up in the hands of Harvest, Curaleaf or MedMen?

The legal cannabis market isn't the minority-owned-and-operated industry people thought it would be, and it probably never will be.

Unfortunately, there's no perfect answer. This is what happens in capitalist markets. Cannabis is no exception.

As fascinating as I'd find the project of constructing a perfect market statutorily (if even possible) that's not what the Safe and Smart Arizona Act is really about.

It's about saving people from facing jail time because they smoke weed. The initiative makes anything between one and two-and-a-half ounces a misdemeanor (by the third offense). And it offers expungement provisions to wipe cannabis crimes from people's records.

The thing a lot of cannabis users forget is that cannabis possession is automatically a felony. They forget that the smallest amount carries a penalty of four months to two years behind bars, and depending on which county you're in, you're going to get two years—your first time.

Even a medical marijuana card didn't protect Rodney Jones from getting arrested in Yavapai County in 2014. He spent two-and-a-half-years in prison before the Arizona Supreme Court cleared him just last year.

Thousands of Arizonans have been arrested for cannabis, and this initiative is about them.

This isn't about patients, or recreational users. This is about people who have had to spend years of their life in prison for something the 200,000 of us get to do without fear of arrest.

This is about correcting a societal injustice that imprisons tens of thousands of mostly minority Americans for something that makes others millionaires.

Let's not forget why cannabis is illegal in the first place. It isn't because the government couldn't figure out how it wanted to structure the market. Like many laws, it's a tool to target poor people and racial minorities.

If you still want to argue that we should legalize cannabis "the right way," go ahead. But remember you're putting your "perfect" initiative up against the lives of others.

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