To Pot or Not

A primer on two marijuana bills making their way through state Legislature

State Rep. Mark Cardenas, a second-term Democrat from the Phoenix area, introduced legislation to legalize recreational pot and another to decriminalize by reducing penalties for possession.

The first, House Bill 2007, would green light the purchase, consumption and possession of pot to adults 21 and older. You'd also be able to grow up to five plants for your smoking or eating purposes, but you can't smoke in public and you can't use a fake ID to purchase or sell to minors, among other regulations that are the same as how the state deals with alcohol.

And it would be similar to how the medical marijuana system functions already—everyone who qualifies could grow their own or go to a dispensary to buy it.

Similar to what is happening in Colorado, Washington state and Oregon, the revenue for the state would explode—this bill plans to tax marijuana at $50 per ounce.

The Arizona Department of Health Services would have the ability to adjust the tax rate annually "to account for inflation and deflation based on the consumer price." The Department of Revenue would distribute every three months revenues generated by these taxes, which would be broken down as follows: 30 percent to education; 10 percent to health services for use in voluntary alcohol, tobacco and marijuana abuse treatment; 10 percent for the department to develop public education campaigns for youth and adults about the health and safe risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana; and the remaining 50 percent would go to the state's general fund.

As the state faces a $1 billion deficit, and with Gov. Doug Ducey's plans to suck out millions and millions of dollars from the education fund to alleviate part of this shortfall, that revenue—which would be around $48 million according to a 2014 report by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee—might be what determines the fate of that bill.

Also, a bill signed into law would be much easier to go back to and change in the future if needed. Even groups like Safer Arizona, who are crusading to get a citizens initiative to legalize pot in 2016, argue an initiative is harder to change later—proposed adjustments are required to be approved by 75 percent of the state Legislature.

Mikel Weisser, political liaison for Safer Arizona and former Democratic candidate in Arizona's Congressional District 4 (he lost to Republican incumbent Paul Gosar last year), along with other Safer members and marijuana advocates, has been at the state Capitol since the 2015 legislative session began last week, meeting with lawmakers, like Cardenas, who support the legalization of marijuana, as well as trying to attract more legislative followers.

He says another bill he's excited about is HB 2006 (also introduced by Cardenas), which would amend a section in the state penal code dealing with marijuana arrests and convictions.

"Cardenas introduced a similar bill in the 2014 legislative session, which would have made it harder for an average marijuana user to get charged with a felony. That bill didn't get a hearing," Weisser says.

In simple terms, the bill would establish lesser punishments for possession of marijuana. Right now in Arizona, if you have less than two pounds of pot, depending on what you were planning to do with it, it all leads to felony charges.

"When you have 16,000 people a year who have their employment ability tarnished by a felony arrest, you are essentially dooming them," Weisser says. "If these people can't feed their families, because they lost their earning power, they end up with government assistance." Quite simply, putting average people away over pot possessions and marking them with that scarlet letter, it ends up becoming a burden to tax payers.

With this bill, for instance, if you are found with one ounce of pot, it'd be considered a petty offense; if you're found with two pounds or more with intent to sell, the class 4 felony would become a class 3 misdemeanor.

Weisser says there are a few other rumored marijuana-related bills that haven't been filed yet. And, as of last Thursday, neither one of Cardenas' bills had more than one sponsor.

"They don't have to have a bunch of sponsors, but the bills that everybody wants to jump in the bandwagon with have a much easier time than bills that are floating out there on their own," Weisser says.

The next step is for the bills to be assigned to a committee and be given a hearing.

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