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3/8/2014 1:12:00 PM
Could Arizona legalize marijuana? Two groups want issue on ballot
A sign seeks signatures on a petition to have a referendum in November on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Arizona. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Moriah Costa)
A sign seeks signatures on a petition to have a referendum in November on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Arizona. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Moriah Costa)
By Moriah Costa
Cronkite News Service

PHOENIX - When Scott Cecil wound up facing a felony charge for possessing marijuana for his own use, he started to think the so-called war on drugs was targeting the wrong people.

"It really made me realize there are hundreds of thousands of people per year that are arrested for marijuana and other drugs," he said. "They haven't committed any violent crimes, they aren't selling drugs, they're just using drugs recreationally."

Cecil, a student at Mesa Community College and board member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, is part of a larger movement to legalize marijuana in Arizona. He and other activists with Safer Arizona, a grassroots marijuana advocacy group, are trying to collect enough signatures to put a legalization initiative on the November ballot.

Dennis Bohlke, treasurer for Safer Arizona, said Arizona would be a safer place if marijuana were legalized.

"We think it's safer than alcohol, and we find it outrageous that people are being jailed and being labeled as felons," he said.

But is Arizona, several years removed from narrowly approving medical marijuana, ready to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington by legalizing recreational use?

Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University, said there may be more support out there than many would assume.

"I've always said that Arizona is a lesson in contradictions," he said. "We know that some issues that are aligned ideologically in other parts of the country, like the environment, cut across some of those traditional ideological boundaries in Arizona. And I think depending on the framing, the marijuana issue cuts across those traditional cleavages as well."

He said changing views on legalization speak to a culture change nationally.

"Just like gay marriage - the issue of gay marriage is changing nationally - we're seeing changes in attitudes toward the legalization of marijuana," Solop said. "It's a national phenomenon, and it's coming here to Arizona."

A January poll by the Behavior Research Center found that 51 percent of Arizonans surveyed said the sale of marijuana should be legal, while 41 percent were against the idea.

That same month a national CNN/Opinion Research Poll found that 55 percent of those surveyed said marijuana should be legal while 44 percent were against it.

The notion of legalization reached the Arizona State Legislature this year, though two Democratic bills on the subject have gone nowhere.

HB 2474, introduced by Rep. Mark A. Cardenas, D-Phoenix, would make marijuana possession a petty offense. HB 2558, introduced by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Gallego said drug war has failed and that recreational use of marijuana is no different than drinking alcohol.

"If we really want to stop addiction and the drug cartels then we have to look at this and fight this in a different way," he said.

Gallego said marijuana will eventually be legalized, most likely through a ballot initiative.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said trying to follow Colorado and Washington's lead so soon wouldn't be smart.

"It's a reckless policy, and it's born either out of ignorance or indifference to the impact to the community and to our youth and public safety," he said.

Montgomery said claims that legalizing marijuana wouldn't harm the community are false.

"It's going to impact quality of life, health care, economic competitiveness and labor productivity in the long run," he said.

Tony Ryan, a retired Denver police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said he never had a problem with marijuana users in his 36 years in law enforcement. He now lives in Arizona.

"We didn't get calls about somebody getting high and beating up their wife like happens with alcohol," he said. "Marijuana people don't cause trouble."

But Carolyn Short, chairwoman for Keep AZ Drug Free, said legalizing marijuana would give kids the idea that marijuana is safe when medical studies indicate that it isn't.

"We know that marijuana use is associated with schizophrenia, respiratory disease, cardiac disease and both temporary and long-term decreased brain function," she said.

Safer Arizona has until July 3 to get the 259,213 signatures needed to get marijuana legalization on this year's ballot. If it fails, the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which was behind the effort to bring medical marijuana to Arizona, is gearing up for campaign here in 2016, when a presidential election will boost voter turnout.

Whether legalization is on the ballot this year or in 2016, Cecil said he will keep advocating for the recreational use of the drug.

"Somebody has to be the voice of reason and the voice of what voters want," he said.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Article comment by: David K

The first tax figures for Colorado shows the drug brought in $3.5 million in taxes and fees in January. Of that, $2.1 million came from recreational marijuana and the remaining $1.4 million from medical marijuana. The figures from the state Department of Revenue also give a preliminary idea of the size of the marijuana trade in the state, showing $14 million worth of marijuana was sold in the first month of legal sales. Medical marijuana still outsold recreational pot by more than two to one, netting $31 million in sales that month. "It's like the end of alcohol prohibition. We don't go to the alley to buy a six pack anymore. We go to stores. And that is what's happening with marijuana," said Brian Vicente, who helped legalize pot in Colorado. "This is revenue directly out of the hands of cartels. These tax numbers will probably grow over time, but since it's a new market, we'll have to wait and see." These first monies will go to rebuild schools there.

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Article comment by: Real question is not

It will happen, just a matter of how long it takes.

With the Elected county attorney doing their best to delay/forestall/limit or otherwise derail the democratic process... it might add a delay.

Or perhaps it will get all the 'stoners off their couches' to use the ridiculous stereotype that has been applied, and get them to the polls.

Truly a double edged sword if the opposition is not careful.

But it will happen... one way or another.

Once folks realize that drunk driving deaths and prescription overdoses will decrease, among other things.

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Article comment by: verde county

Once they stop making this a big deal then it will stop being a big deal. This is the largest cash cow in the country whether illegal or legal. Everyone wants their greedy hands on the money made, whether thru conviction or sales. This must be completely decriminalized at federal level to be completely immune from greed and extreme profit. Right now those with legal mj cards are being herded into dispensaries to pay large sums for basic pot. Regulation of strains, cost, safety, tax and distribution is working and good. I would purpose to use all legal sales tax of pot and pot products to be used to pay off the national debt. And when paid off. NO tax on pot. There is zero reason to not put this on the ballot to end the prohibition and cash cow.

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014
Article comment by: David K

With all due respect, kids don't get their information about drugs from Drug Free Arizona. If they did none would be smoking marijuana. Legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol won't send the wrong message to kids. Parents need to be parents and talk to their kids about alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs. This is what President Obama did when he told his girls that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol but that kids should not use it. Kids have reported for many years on the government's own SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) drug surveys that it is easier for them to get marijuana than it is to get alcohol or tobacco. This is because both alcohol and tobacco are regulated. People ask for ID's. If we ask for ID's when marijuana is sold we could do a better job of keeping it out of the hands of kids, we could let responsible adults use it, and we could collect taxes for what has become the nation's number one cash crop, under our current system where it is illegal. Arresting kids, sentencing them to treatment, and ruining their lives by taking away voting, food stamps, student loans, organ transplants, federal housing, and many other privileges does not work. It is time that we legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol.

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014
Article comment by: The ignorance

lies within county attorney's offices all over this backwater state. Montgomery and Polk really should try to educate themselves about the FACTS concerning cannabis use and quit trying to criminalize a sizeable segment of society. Remember folks they hold ELECTIVE office.

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014
Article comment by: Slater Slater

The Federal gov taxes a drug they
consider a class one drug illegal by their own
Talk about flip flopping.It's one way or the other.When it comes to taxes anything go's.
I hope somebody has the guts to challenge it in court and let them mumble along.Don't
expect to win though.

Posted: Sunday, March 9, 2014
Article comment by: Tina VIGILANTE

It's no worse than alcohol or tobacco. Grow up. Legalize it.

Posted: Sunday, March 9, 2014
Article comment by: Just a matter of time

Don't be surprised if this passes, and if not this time, then sometime down the road. It's just a matter of sooner or later.

You can hardly make the argument that legalizing cannabis harms children any more than you can make the argument that legalized tobacco and alcohol harms children. It's nonsensical.

Tobacco and alcohol in fact do far more damage to people, including children, than cannabis does or ever will.

Legalize it, regulate it, and tax it. Let this become a controlled, legitimate industry that creates jobs here, instead of outsourcing cannabis illegally to narco-terrorists in Mexico who're wreaking havoc with our neighbors to the south.

Posted: Saturday, March 8, 2014
Article comment by: Let us Look

Gallego said drug war has failed and that recreational use of marijuana is no different than drinking alcohol. Really????

Drinking alcohol is much more different than recreational use of marijuana. Test have proven that someone can drink themselves to death but I have not seen any test that proves someone can overdose on marijuana. That in itself should show that recreational use of marijuana IS different than drinking alcohol.

I would much rather see my kids (who are of drinking age) smoke a joint than drink alcohol. I always worry that my child will get drunk in a bar or at a friends house and then drive home. At least if they are smoking a joint then I know they have a better chance of getting home safely than if they were drinking.

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