The Year in Weed: In case your memory is hazy, this was the big cannabis news in 2020

You could say the year 2020 sucked donkey balls overall, and not many people would disagree. Between a global pandemic destroying families and small businesses, an uncaring and unorganized federal government that completely botched the response to the outbreak, and a Cheeto-colored wannabe dictator who (as of our print deadline, anyway) seems determined to remain in the White House after losing the election, there has not been a lot to celebrate as the year 2020 swirls down the toilet.

That said, at least we had weed to get us through it, at least if you had a medical card and could buy it at a dispensary or if you still had a dealer on the black market. And in a few short months, you won't need that dealer, as 60% of Arizona voters approved Prop 207 and have legalized a recreational weed program in the state beginning in spring 2021.

Overall, it was a great year for weed and legalization advocates, as four states other states legalized cannabis in some form.

Here's the other big weed news of the year for you to review while you spend New Year's Eve at home, rolling up a fatty and watching balls drop around the globe.

January: The Arizona legislative session began 2020 with two recreational marijuana ballot measures and six different medical marijuana bills, none of which became law.

February: Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden announced his stance on legalizing marijuana as he campaigned for the presidency he won in November. As former head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden pushed policies that increased drug offense incarcerations since the late '80s. In 1989, Biden openly criticized then-president George H.W. Bush's War on Drugs battle plan, stating Bush's plan wasn't "tough enough, bold enough or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand." Since then, Biden has also come out in support for decriminalization, federally approving medical marijuana and having arrest records expunged.

Tucson Rep. Randy Friese (D) introduced HB2657 in the Arizona Legislature to legalize cannabis. The bill—which never really had any chance of passing—would have legalized up to one ounce of cannabis and five grams of concentrate, expunged prior cannabis arrests and convictions and placed control of the program under the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control to allow liquor stores to sell cannabis.

March: Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers introduced a ballot proposition to limit the amount of THC in cannabis strains to 2 percent, the amount of THC in CBD strains. Typical cannabis strains have somewhere between 4 to 8 percent THC while THC-heavy strains usually have between 10 to 30 percent. Critics said the resolution would have a devastating effect on the business as concentrates would likely have become too costly to produce, and the price of flower would plummet, causing consumers to buy a whole lot more of it. Meanwhile, the global COVID pandemic set in and medical cannabis dispensaries saw a boom, as dispensaries were considered an essential service and sales went through the roof. After initial shortages, most dispensaries had their usual menu items available within a few days.

April: As 4/20 approached, Tucson dispensaries altered how they did business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some extended 4/20 deals over the entire week; others suspended walk-in service in favor of online and phone orders; others reduced the number of patients allowed in the building. Employees were required to wear facemasks and gloves and get their temperatures taken while sneeze guards were installed. Crowds decreased, but patients increased the size of their purchases to get ahead of 4/20 crowds.

May: Arizona lost one of its greatest cannabis advocates when former director for Arizona NORML Mikel Weisser died May 13 at 61 years of age. His political activity extended far beyond cannabis, and even included three runs for Congress. Before that, he was a teacher, as was his wife Beth, who is vice president of the Kingman Unified School District board.

The Arizona Supreme Court denied an effort by a number of initiative campaigns to collect online signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Attorney General Mark Brnovich cheered the ruling, saying: "My job is to defend the law and I'm going to continue doing so as long as I'm attorney general ... A health crisis is not an excuse to ignore the constitution."

June: Fears of shortages during the pandemic shutdown calmed in the local market, as sales declined in April after a record March. Arizona dispensaries made nearly 85,000 transactions in April 2020, selling more than 16,000 pounds of cannabis. The busiest day during April was 4/20—the unofficial, international pot holiday—with more than 40,000 transactions statewide, resulting in nearly 1,000 pounds sold. Nearly 10,000 more transactions took place during April 2020 than the previous year, when there was no pandemic, no long lines and more generous 4/20 specials.

July: Smart and Safe Arizona filed 420,000 signatures with the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on July 1 to put Prop 207 on the November ballot, far more than the 237,467 signatures needed to qualify.

Two clinical studies were in the works, evaluating CBDs for prevention and treatment of the novel coronavirus. The studies were not for an anti-virus vaccine, but as therapies that could enhance primary treatment and prevention strategies. But skeptics were not convinced. "Everybody wants cannabis to be a cure-all miracle drug," local MMJ Dr. Heather Moroso. "Cannabis can help people suffering from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The stress and anxiety of being in isolation; unknown job and family situations; domestic abuse and isolation? I'm not a rocket scientist, but sensible use of the drug can help reduce the anxiety."

Opponents of the effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona filed a legal challenge in Maricopa County Superior Court. Arizonans for Health and Public Safety took issue with what they called misleading language in Smart and Safe Arizona's 100-word summary, claiming, among other things, the initiative redefines marijuana by including cannabis extracts along with marijuana flower. "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."

"I would call their challenge bonkers," Strategies 360's Stacy Pearson said.

August: Maricopa Superior Court Judge James Smith ruled that Smart and Safe Arizona's 100-word summary did not mislead voters. In his ruling, Judge Smith wrote, "Their arguments turned on what hypothetical electors would want to know and how the summary deviated from those predicted desires. ... Electors are not likely to be confused that legalizing recreational marijuana will include [concentrates] when the medical marijuana law allows it." The Arizona Supreme Court would later back Smith's ruling, ensuring Prop 207 would appear on the ballot.

September: House Resolution 3884, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (aka the MORE Act), introduced in 2019 by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), passed in the Democratic House of Representatives, but was later killed in the Senate. MORE would "decriminalize and deschedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs [and] provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses," paving the way to address problems caused by conflicting federal and state laws. Arizona Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego, all Democrats, supported the bill. MORE passed the House again on Dec. 4, 2020, received in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Finance.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported that statewide sales of cannabis for the month of August reached a total of 18,516 pounds of various forms of marijuana. That followed a July sales explosion totaling 18,647 pounds sold. Those numbers are about 1,500 pounds more than the month of March, which weighed in at 17,094 pounds, and nearly a ton and a half more than January, at 15,302 pounds. The numbers also dwarf sales from the previous year, when in August 2019 statewide sales reached 14,745 pounds after 13,983 in July. Year-to-date sales through August 2020 were 136,493 pounds, compared to 105,241 in 2019.

November: Amid growing support for legalization, third party testing became mandatory for medicinal marijuana and its derivative products, thanks to a 2019 law that finally was coming into effect. Testing will determine unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and because there were an insufficient number of certified testing facilities, AZDHS delayed full rollout of the testing program, requirements for 17 of 59 pesticides and testing for mycotoxins would be postponed until May 1, 2021 to avoid product shortages.

On Nov. 4, Arizonans voted in favor of the Smart and Safe Arizona, Prop 207, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana for persons over the age of 21. The initiative passed with nearly 60% of the vote. New Jersey, Montana and South Dakota also approved recreational weed, while Mississippi approved the use of medical marijuana for people with "debilitating conditions." Expungement of low-level cannabis charges begins next July, but in the wake of the election, most Arizona counties began dialing down enforcement.

December: Reaction to the passage of Prop 207 was swift in some quarters, as several Pima County towns began passing emergency resolutions aimed at restricting recreational cannabis sales in the coming year. Since mid-October, municipalities including Sahuarita, Marana and Oro Valley acted to limit legal cannabis sales in their respective jurisdictions. But the City of Tucson opted for a more welcoming approach to its zoning ordinance in preparation for legal weed sales—and the attendant tax boon—coming in 2021.

Austin Counts and Nick Meyers contributed to this roundup.

Correction: No, we were not high, but last week's Cannabis 520 column "Cards on the Table" (Dec. 24) incorrectly stated that medical marijuana in Arizona is tax-exempt. MMJ is taxed at a 6.6% rate on the state level, with an additional 2% to 3% for local municipalities. Tucson patients pay 8.7%, according to Downtown and D2 Dispensary owner Moe Asnani.

Additionally, the possession limit for concentrates is 5 grams for those without a medical certification.

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