Feature: Arizona Medical Marijuana Initiative Looking Good This November

Come November 2, there could be two more medical marijuana states, as voters in both South Dakota and Arizona go to the polls to vote on medical marijuana initiatives. Last week, we surveyed the state of play in South Dakota. This week, we turn our attention to Arizona.

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While Arizona's political class has been caught up in the wild and woolly politics of immigration, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project (AMMPP) at the beginning of this month quietly qualified its initiative for the November ballot after turning in more than 252,000 voter signatures in March.

Under the initiative, known as the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, patients suffering from a specified list of diseases or conditions (cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, Chrohn's disease, Alzheimers, wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe muscle spasms) or "any other conditions or its treatment added by the Department [of Health]" could use marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation. Patients or designated caregivers could possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana.

The initiative envisions a system of state-registered, nonprofit dispensaries that could grow, process, sell, and transport medical marijuana and be remunerated for costs incurred in the process. In most cases, patients or their caregivers would not be allowed to grow their own medicine. Instead, unless they live more than 25 miles from the nearest dispensary, they would have to purchase their medicine at a dispensary. Patients and their caregivers outside that range would be allowed to grow up to 12 plants.

A little more than four months out from Election Day, the Arizona initiative appears to be well positioned for victory. "It's looking good, very good," said AMMPP spokesman Andrew Myers. "Arizona has shown overwhelming support for medical marijuana in the past, and our polling numbers are similar," he said.

"The polling we've seen is very encouraging, and there's been some opposition, but it doesn't seem very organized," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "We're hopeful that Arizona can join the list of states that have effective medical marijuana laws."

Both Meno and Myers cited a February 2009 opinion poll on the topic. That poll showed that 65% of Arizonans supported medical marijuana.

Arizonans have also twice voted to approve medical marijuana, in 1996 and again in 1998. In 1996, the initiative passed, only to be rejected by the state legislature, which placed it on the ballot two years later in order to give voters a chance to rectify their mistake. But the voters again approved medical marijuana, only to find out later that the measure was unworkable because the initiative mandated that physicians prescribe -- not recommend -- medical marijuana. That meant that doctors who wanted their patients to use marijuana would run up against the DEA, which controls doctors' ability to prescribe controlled substances.

In 2002, voters rejected a decriminalization initiative that had, as Myers put it, "a wacky medical component." Under that measure, the state Department of Public Safety would have had to distribute seized marijuana for free to medical marijuana patients.

"This is the first time we've had a complete, workable medical marijuana proposal in the state," said Myers.

What the campaign will look like this fall depends on what the opposition -- if any -- does, said both Meno and Myers. Meno said that MPP has invested more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to qualify the measure for the ballot, and while he declined to comment on MPP's plans in the state for the next few months, he did say that MPP was ready to spend what it takes to get over the top. "We are fully confident that enough will be spent over the next four months to ensure that we are celebrating a victory on November 2," he said.

"What our campaign is going to look like will be dictated by what our opposition is," said Myers, a Phoenix-based political consultant. "We're not going to spend millions of dollars on a campaign where there isn't any organized opposition, and we haven't seen anyone willing to spend money on the other side. As it stands right now, there is a good chance this won't be an expensive campaign. We're leading by 30 points with no opposition."

The only opposition that has so far emerged is Stop the Pot, a web site put up by Max Fose, a former Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) political operative, now a political consultant looking for opportunities to cash in on anti-marijuana sentiment -- if it emerges. That web site has been largely inactive since it first went up a few weeks ago. Fose did not respond to Chronicle requests for an interview.

"I know Max personally," said Myers. "He's a political consultant here and he's trying to drum up some business. He's hoping that if some outside group comes in, he'll be in a position to form a committee to get some of those dollars."

One of the unique -- and controversial -- properties of the Arizona initiative is that does not allow patients or their caregivers to grow their own pot. The only exception is if patients are more than 25 miles away from a dispensary. "We wanted to design a system that served the needs of typical patients," explained Myers. "We started from the assumption that about 95% of patients who will be receiving recommendations are going to want to use dispensaries. Growing your own product or finding a competent caregiver can be very difficult."

But there was another reason for limiting patient grows, said Myers. "Arizona is a state with a very dense population -- most of the state's population is in Phoenix and Tucson -- and there was concern about large numbers of people doing urban cultivation. That was a major law enforcement concern, but this halo around dispensaries restricts urban growing, and it has the added benefit of providing a market for the dispensaries. In essence, the more patients a nonprofit dispensary has, the lower the price. We wanted to have a situation where dispensaries are available, like California, but where patients don't have to pay black market prices."

That reasoning wasn't real popular with some local activists. "We're not 100% happy with the language, but we helped get signatures and we will support it," said Mary Mackenzie, founder of the Tucson-based AZ4NORML, a local NORML affiliate. "We want it legal here for somebody," she exclaimed.

"We don't like that 25-mile perimeter thing, but we're hoping that at least here in Tucson, if police catch a patient growing, they will leave him alone," said Mackenzie. "And there aren't enough eligible conditions. Once we win, we are going to have to go back and start adding conditions. We'll be working with the legislature, the Department of Health, and law enforcement down the road to make changes to make this a better law," she said.

Myers admitted that the no-grow provision was not liked by some elements of the marijuana community, but said it was aimed at protecting likely patients. "We've caught a lot of flak from activists, but most patients don't go to NORML meetings," he said. "We're thinking about a middle-aged woman diagnosed with breast cancer whose oncologist suggests medical marijuana. We wanted a program that would be accessible for people like that."

All of the hysteria about Mexican drug cartels on the border may end up playing into the initiative's hands, said Myers. "We have a really good argument to make that medical patients in Arizona are forced into a really terrible choice: Either continuing to suffer without their medicine, or go the black market. Since most of the marijuana in Arizona comes from Mexico, buying black market marijuana means you are financing violent criminals. Legitimate medical marijuana patients should not have to feel they are inadvertently providing funding to violent criminals as they seek relief. Passing this initiative takes the money out of the hands of criminals and puts it in the hands of nonprofit dispensaries that will serve the community."

Is there anyone in Arizona who wants to argue that it's better to hurt patients than to hurt the cartels? If so, the campaign is chomping at the bit to get into that argument. Come November 2, Arizona looks very likely indeed to join the ranks of the medical marijuana states.

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Wacky?

What was so wacky about the 2002 medical component? Lots of states and reformers since the 1970s have at least considered that model, which was designed to get around both federal intransigence and local objections. Because officers enforcing laws on the subject are allowed to possess and distribute controlled substances without need of a DEA number, it would be practically fed-proof; the only thing the feds could do would be to camp out and seize whatever was taken by a patient. Considering that we have(/strong) had federal intransigence, distribution by the police seems to be just what we need. It is not at all clear that the nonprofit dispensaries in the current measure won't simply be shut down by US DEA at some point for failure to register federally.

Also, the fact that the 2002 measure would've distributed mj which had already been seized from illegal possessors surmounted any objection that the measure would increase the amount of pot in circulation.

LEAP_Speaker's picture

95% of patients are going to use dispensaries is incorrect

I think the assumption that about 95% of patients are going to want to use dispensaries is incorrect. I don't know anyone with any of the conditions listed in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act that could afford dispensary prices, most of us are on disability.

Medical marijuana should cost less than $50 an ounce, including tax. As long as marijuana is worth $300-$500 an ounce, criminals are going to be involved, and so is law enforcement.

Indoor grows were deigned to hide from law enforcement, not efficiently grow marijuana. With all the sun we have in Arizona, to put in thousands of 1000 watt lights, fans, and air conditioners to grow marijuana indoors doesn't make sense to me.

I know the argument, indoor marijuana is better, well let's see high quality outdoor medical marijuana at $50 and ounce, and let the customers decide. It's time we stop growing medical marijuana like drug dealers, and start growing it like farmers.

And someone please tell me how a medical marijuana patient who grow their own could possibly stay within this new law.

A patient can posses 2 1/2 ounces, and grow 12 plants. This would take three grow rooms, and a very complicated schedule of planting and moving plants around.

In fact I challenge anyone to show me how a patient could grow their own medicine and stay within this new law....

E. Jay Fleming
LEAP Speaker
[email protected]
Mohave Valley, AZ

To Jay

First and foremost, Thank you again Jay for a great presentation to Phoenix NORML at our May meeting!

As it relates to the new proposed law, I agree that not everyone will want to go to a dispensary, but as Andrew points out, the more patients a dispensary has the cheaper the prices will be.

Eric N. Franks
Director of Communications and Outreach
Phoenix NORML
Board of Directors
phoenixnormleric(at)gmail.com
Tempe, AZ

Jay

The truth of the matter is over 90% will go to the dispensary, especailly when they first open up... Growing indoors allows
for a controlled enviorment, reducing pesticides an organicides ( none to
a compident grower) Wichita brings higher quality an safer products for meds...
Tom have u tried to grow plants in an oven?? It doesn't work
to well, I promise, and with the new initiative it
not a problem, u don't need 3 rooms unless
u want to produce 5 lbs a month,
please know what you are talking about b4 you go
rambling off

peace and be well

Let Arizona atleast make one smart decision vote YES ON PROP 203

Max Fose is an Idiot and I hope he realizes what an Idiot he really is by donating $2,500 of his own money to help put that website up just for a publicity stunt and by being John McCain's little poster boy just like Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Yet, we have half a million ready to help push Prop 203 to pass this November and that's just one source. I will also be voting this November to help Prop 203 pass. It's sad that change must come so slow especially in Republican states like mine in Arizona even though we are surrounded by Medical Marijuana states and we are right next door to California who (if everything goes good) will decriminalize it and legalize it. If prop 203 doesn't go through this November then it's Good Bye Arizona. Thank you everyone who voted against McCain in 2008!!!

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