Two Bills: The Zombie Apocalypse Is Not Over Yet

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy Photo

We are still likely months away from a merciful end of the Arizona Legislature’s 2022 session (expected sometime in May or June), but legislative rules may well revive pot legislation that has been on life support for the past few weeks.

In a session with few cannabis bills, as legislators focused more on punishing schools and restricting voting rights, there has not been a lot of action on the weed front, but two bills so far have refused to die.

Both Senate Bill 1402 and SB1715 are still alive, if ailing.

SB1402, sponsored by Sen. David Gowan (R-LD14), was intended to turn 13 rural dispensary licenses awarded in April 2021 into dual-use licenses, without affecting the cap on the number of marijuana outlets in the state.

The initial bill garnered support from consumer advocates such as Arizona NORML, but an amendment in February changed that so the medical portion of the dual-use licenses would count against the cap, reinforcing the tight grip the biggest players have on the industry.

The change effectively made SB1402 an anti-competition bill, keeping the Arizona cannabis market artificially limited and less competitive.

“That could lead to some crazy effects in rural Arizona,” Jon Udell, AZNORML’s director of politics, said. “Springerville could have three dispensaries for a few thousand people and cities like Chandler or Gilbert would have a similar number for hundreds of thousands of people.”

There are currently 130 cannabis outlets in operation in Arizona. The number of dispensaries (medical) and establishments (adult-use) is determined by a percentage of traditional pharmacies in the state.

The 2020 census found that Arizona is home to 7 million residents and, according to a 2020 report by Verilife (operated by PharmaCann Inc., the largest multi-state operator (MSO) in the U.S.), determined that the state has about 1.4 dispensaries per 100,000 residents.

For comparison, Colorado, one of the first states to legalize adult-use recreational weed in 2012, has about 6 million residents, but has a whopping 14.1 dispensaries per 100,000. Nevada, another sparsely populated western state, has a little more than 3 million people, with 2.4 dispensaries per 100,000.

“We badly, badly need more competition,” Udell said. “It’s been six years since the last (license) allocation, six years since the last census of pharmacies. We know there’s more pharmacies now than before, so that means there should be more licenses.”

SB1402 was languishing as February turned to March, and in all likelihood would be laid out on a slab to await the 56th legislative session in 2023. But arcane rules have come to the rescue as, sometime this week, SB1408 could come back as a “strike everything bill” (striker) HB2050.

Strikers are unrelated bills that are gutted and replaced with bills that might otherwise have no chance of passing, allowing legislators to circumvent the process.

The amendment to HB2050, currently related to the state’s telecommunications fund, will be heard sometime this week (after press time).

The remaining going nowhere bill that has not been tagged for a striker is SB1715, also sponsored by Gowan, that would ban hemp-derived cannabinoids. The bill was amended to ban “impairing cannabinoids” rather than all hemp-derived products, but it would still have the effect of tightening up the market to the benefit of the big players.

“Barring a striker and without being assigned to committee, this bill could potentially be dead,” Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette said. “If they continue down the path of blanket prohibition, we’re going to be opposed. It doesn’t look real good for 1715, simply because we’re running out of time and it has not yet been assigned to committee in the House, having passed the Senate.”

Even if the bill makes it to the floor for a vote, it would face an uphill battle, as it would require a three-quarters vote to pass due to voter protections.

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