Not Satisfied

An opinion on the latest MJ legalization petition draft from a MMJ dispensary operator

I have been involved in the Pro-Cannabis movement for quite some time. I am actively involved with an alphabet soup of drug policy reform organizations. I voted to legalize medical marijuana in Arizona in 1996 and 1998. With my help those medical marijuana initiatives were passed by a majority of the voters but never enacted.

This was a frustrating event for a young man voting in his first two elections. The votes had been counted and we won. Why didn't we get our program along with California, that also passed a medical marijuana law?

Arizonans eventually tired of this sort of treatment and in the very next election passed The Voter Protection Act of 2000 (VPA) preventing this sort of government interference. After al,l if government does not follow the will of the people why even vote to begin with?

This Voter Protection Act made this seldom-used type of citizen driven legislation an extremely powerful tool to change the laws in Arizona. One Arizona law created via this process is the Medical Marijuana Act of 2010, which was sponsored by The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

MPP has a history of doing this in fact, their slogan is "MPP—We Change Laws". They have been the driving force behind nearly all successful change to state cannabis laws in the United States. Until recently all of this change was via voter initiative.

MPP is going to make a 10-state push via voter initiatives in November 2016 to legalize cannabis use for adults in Arizona and a number of other states. These measures have some common goals, to decriminalize use and possession of cannabis and create a regulated taxed system for its distribution. This move is being planned for the 2016 election cycle because we will be electing a new president and this event always drives liberal voters to the polls in greater numbers.

Wide spread success would likely signal the imminent end of cannabis prohibition to our federal government and begin to dramatically change the landscape in which the cannabis industry operates across the country. Because these 10 different states each have their own state constitution and state laws regarding how things are to be changed through each of their democratic processes, each of these measures enacted by MPP must be crafted in its own right.

There have been meetings between MPP, the industry group and cannabis activists that resulted in a recent publicly released draft of the MMP sponsored initiative dated Feb. 15, and purported to be the final draft that caused quite a stir among a group of current operators of medical marijuana dispensaries that we can refer to as the "industry group." The devil is in the details, so lets go through some of the controversial parts line by line and consider what it all means. The excerpt of the draft initiative language itself is written in.

Sec. 2 Findings

3. The People of the State of Arizona proclaim that marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol so that:

(a) Marijuana may only be purchased legally from a business that is licensed and regulated;

(b) Cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transporting, and selling marijuana will be controlled through licensing and regulation;

(c) Individuals will be allowed to produce a limited amount of marijuana for personal use;

(a) and (b) seem like good ideas as a regulated market will eventually eliminate the cartel's hold on the coveted black market for cannabis, but who will be the regulators, how many licenses will be issued and how will they be distributed?

As initially written the draft initiative declares the Health Department will issue licensure, until the new Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control is created and staffed in 2018. The number of licenses issued will not be capped on the state level. However, each city, town or county will be allowed to impose a local limit or ban through their own political process. The licenses for cultivation and retail sale will initially be issued to existing state-licensed cannabis dispensaries, but after 17 months the application process for retail and cultivation licensure will be opened up to all interested parties that meet the requirements established through later rulemaking.

The "industry group" has taken issue with the proposed process of regulation and also with the proposed reliance on local jurisdictions to limit the number of operations permitted in the future. Instead they would like to impose a statewide cap on the number of licenses issued in the future and further they wish to be allowed to operate as a monopoly for an extended period of time so they might recoup investment they made in their medical cannabis operations.

The "industry group" also take issue with (c) in regard to an individual's right to produce cannabis on a small scale for himself. The "industry group" would like to eliminate this privilege of individuals being allowed to produce cannabis for themselves or, at a minimum, require that individual cultivators register with the state. They fear that if people grow their own it will not be necessary for them to shop at dispensaries, and that their businesses will miss out on potential revenue.

In what can only be called a "Middle of the Night, Dirty, Back Room Deal" the the Night, Dirty, Back Room Deal" the "industry group" negotiated new language for this initiative, which was released to only a small group and was dated Feb. 25. Individual grow rights are mysteriously gone after being promised to the activists and those who care to grow their own medicine until this late date. The rules covering (a) and (b) and the distribution of permits have changed, benefiting no one but the current operators. The new idea is to cap licensure at 7 to 10 percent of the number of liquor licenses. This number is linked to population. Currently there are about 6,000 liquor licenses in Arizona. Seven percent of 6,000 happens to be 420, so at least someone has a sense of humor. This number might be adequate initially but will soon prove to be insufficient to handle the market.

The "industry group" wishes to create a monopoly surrounding cannabis production and distribution. They fear competition will drive the price down and affect their business. I beg to differ; most people will not have the time, talents or interest to produce their own cannabis. There will be plenty of users who are happy to purchase their products at the state-licensed stores. It is extremely important that those who do want to produce their own medicine have that right. They might need a certain varietal, or prefer organically grown product. Maybe they have limited financial resources and can't afford to purchase from a dispensary, or perhaps they are a "live off the land" type who simply like to know where their food, medicine, and herbs come from. In addition, if the price remains high in the regulated market, the black market, which is unregulated and untaxed, will continue to thrive.

It should not be our concern to protect the industry group's financial interests at the expense of millions of Arizona adult citizens who wish to take responsibility for their own destiny. A mother should be allowed to have a simple herb in a flower box to prevent her child from suffering through seizures. A person who finds relief of PTSD symptoms with cannabis should be allowed to grow a few plants to use as medicine. The simple act of caring for their own needs will be as cathartic as the medicine itself, and why should this right to care for oneself be limited to people who are sick? An adult in Arizona who prefers cannabis to alcohol for their relaxation and to unwind from the stresses of daily life should not face imprisonment for this choice.

I am a medical marijuana dispensary director and owner and while I know that competition from a new recreational market could negatively affect my business, state-legal dispensaries already face competition from the unregulated, untaxed black market. I am certain the recreational market will be many times larger and require far more retail and cultivation sites to satisfy the demand. We clearly will need to issue new licensure beyond the number suggested by the Feb. 25 draft. The 60,000 or so medical patients who are certified to use cannabis represent only a drop in the bucket of this new market's potential.

I figure it this way,

An estimated 15 percent of Americans use cannabis. There are about 5 million adults in Arizona.

5,000,000 adults x .15 user rate= 750,000 recreational users compared to 60,000 medical users.

So the recreational market can be estimated at about 12 times the size of the medical market.

In addition, some accommodation is being made for the "industry group" in Arizona. Seventeen months is a long time in this rapidly growing industry. Here and in other states around the country, as the legal markets begin to mature, cannabis business volumes grow rapidly, sometimes at rates of 15 to 20 percent per month. Surely this is enough of a head start for these operators to establish infrastructure and market share.

We are learning more every day about Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome, and about non-psychoactive cannabinoids people can use instead of pills to treat a wide variety of health care concerns. Prohibition of cannabis has caused great harm to our citizens and our society and none of the scientific information about cannabis was available when the laws prohibiting its cultivation and possession were enacted. It is irrational to enact policy that costs our society so dearly by imprisoning people for possessing or growing a plant.

These voter initiatives are useful but they also become a double-edged sword. The language of a voter initiative is extremely important because due to the VPA it is very difficult to modify parts that are impractical or become outdated. Once passed by the voters those words are law and they cannot be changed by the Legislature or courts. These initiatives are often written by individuals or small groups. In contrast, laws written and passed through the Legislature have many minds in the room while laws are drafted and much conversation happens before the vote.

No one is trying to make changes to the medical program created by Arizona voters with the help of MPP in 2010. This is a new market, an adult-use market, and it requires a new bit of legislation, that if successful, will provide a taste of freedom to millions of Arizonans.

Legalization of cannabis can come with many benefits for individuals and society as a whole, so it's tempting to jump on board and vote for any legislation effort that gives citizens more freedoms. Voter initiatives are difficult to change once they become law. This initiative intends to create a framework, but there will be further rulemaking that is just as important to the success of the program. It is our civic duty to read the language of the initiative and understand the particulars, so we can make our best choice for Arizona. Critical thinkers should carefully cast their vote on these cannabis-related issues, but they must also think on a broader level and be wary of motives that would lead us astray.

If the MPP initiative does not satisfy Arizona citizens needs let us not pass the law. Instead we can ask our Legislature to craft a more sensible measure, and if they won't we can elect those who will.

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