Arizona is now set to join South Dakota as states where voters will have the chance to approve a medical marijuana initiative this year. The Arizona secretary of state's office announced Tuesday that supporters had turned in enough valid voter signatures to be certified for the November ballot.
The initiative would allow terminally and seriously ill patients suffering from specified diseases or conditions to use marijuana with their doctor's approval. It also allows for state authorities to add diseases or conditions to that list. The initiative creates a registry system for patients and caregivers and establishes penalties for false statements and fraudulent IDs.
Patients would have to procure their medicine at a regulated medical marijuana dispensary unless they live more than 25 miles away from a dispensary. In that case, patients or their caregivers could grow up to 12 plants. No caregiver could grow for more than five patients. Patients could possess up to 2.5 ounces.
The initiative caps the number of dispensaries at 120 to avoid a California-style green gold rush. It also specifies that people cannot smoke marijuana at the dispensaries, a phenomenon that has occurred in some medical marijuana states. And it has zoning restrictions to keep dispensaries in commercial or industrial areas and away from schools.
"We are very happy that Arizonans will have the opportunity this November to vote for a compassionate and responsible law that protects seriously ill patients," said Steve Fox, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, which provides significant funding and support to AMMPP. "By voting in favor of this initiative, Arizonans will ensure that residents suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other serious ailments will be given safe access to a medicine they and their doctors believe can relieve their condition. The proposed law will also create a dispensary system that will provide patients the same reliable access to medical marijuana that they would have to any other medicine -- meaning they won't have to risk their own safety by purchasing it from the criminal market."
"This would provide relief for Arizona's most vulnerable and ill residents," AMMPP spokesman Andrew Myers told the Arizona Capitol Times.
Opponents are already sharpening their arguments. Former DEA agent and Partnership for a Drug-Free America Arizona affiliate spokesman Doug Hebert told the Capitol Times smoking marijuana is no substitute for medicine and that allowing medical marijuana would lead to increased illegal drug use. He also questioned the motives of initiative backers.
"They're preying on voter sympathy for very ill people, because they want to smoke marijuana," Hebert claimed. "If they wanted to keep this above ground, you'd think they'd want law enforcement to have a role, but they specifically wrote into the initiative that the only agency that can monitor the dispensaries is the (Department of Health Services), and they can't make an inspection without giving notice first," he complained.
Hebert also claimed the initiative infringes on the right of employers to keep a drug-free workplace -- it does not -- and that it would cause permissive attitudes toward drug use, particularly among kids. That has not proven to be the case in other states that allow medical marijuana.
This would be the third attempt at legalizing medical marijuana at the ballot box in Arizona. In 1996, voters approved an initiative allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, but that was overturned by the state legislature. Two years later, voters again approved medical marijuana, but that effort was invalidated because of a drafting error.
Drafters of the current initiative learned from those efforts and others around the country, Myers said. "We could look at what works, and what doesn't," he said. "We wrote it to be as transparent as possible, and to have no negative impact."
AMMPP polling has support for the initiative at 65%. If that holds, Arizona could become the 15th medical marijuana state -- or the 16th, if South Dakota also approves it on Election Day.