Arizona Spoiler Group Joins Pot Prohibitionists in Fighting Marijuana Policy Project's Legalization Plan

Strange bedfellows: Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, pro-cannabis activist David "Safer Dave" Wisniewski, and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
Strange bedfellows: Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, pro-cannabis activist David "Safer Dave" Wisniewski, and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

In a case of politics making strange bedfellows, Arizona's top pot prohibitionists and supporters of a grassroots, pro-cannabis effort agree on a legalization bill headed for November's ballot.

In fact, hardcore stoners who support the spoiler group Arizonans for Mindful Regulation would spit up their dab hits in disgust at the very notion that the planned ballot initiative backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project should even be called "legalization."

One AZFMR supporter nearly flipped his lid at the idea that he had something in common with the likes of Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

"You're a weasel!" screamed Jason Hein this morning, during an interview about his opposition to the MPP-affiliated Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. "It's absolutely offensive for you to suggest that I'm on the same side as a prohibitionist!"

Yet the similarities are obvious, and the comparison is a natural one: Both Polk and her ilk, and the AZFMR supporters see the MPP bill as the devil, and they're pushing voters to reject it. While there's no question the grassroots cannabis activists and Polk's buddies are on opposite sides of the overall legalization question, they do agree on some of the same reasons — which may or may not be accurate — for voting "no" on the CRMLA measure.

On Monday, Polk, Montgomery, and Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, published a high-profile op-ed in Arizona newspapers on why Arizonans should vote against legalization that includes talking points that are familiar to followers of Safer Arizona, a pro-AZFMR group.

Besides the imagined crisis of highway deaths and poisoned children, Polk and crew say the CRMLA measure will increase arrests for marijuana-related crimes rather than decrease them, that it takes away medical-marijuana oversight from the state Department of Health, and that it stacks a new Marijuana Licenses and Control Board with industry representatives — all of which have been subjects of loud complaints by the AZFMR crowd.

The AZFMR also has painted the MPP-backed effort as granting a monopoly or oligopoly to existing owners of medical dispensaries.

"The proposed law was written by the medical-marijuana dispensary industry, which cynically gives itself a monopoly on retail licenses," Polk, Montgomery, and Milstead wrote.

There's some truth there: As New Times has covered, the MPP's legalization nearly was derailed early on by the state's medical-marijuana dispensaries, which saw the recreational-use law as a threat to their businesses.

The MPP's initiative, I-08, is a compromise between the MPP and the dispensaries. It aims to create a slightly less free-wheeling version of the kind of legalization seen in neighboring Colorado.

That is, the CRMLA legalizes marijuana possession and cultivation for personal use, and sets up a system of retail stores where cannabis products would be sold legally. The compromise is that of the 150 or 160 retail marijuana licenses, existing dispensary businesses — there are 86 dispensaries now — get first dibs. The existing businesses will have a lock on most urban areas and most licenses, and cannabis activists are rightly worried that too little competition will keep the price of an ounce artificially high.

Despite the flaws of the CRMLA, a competing initiative by the AZFMR that calls for greater reforms is much less likely to make the ballot because it doesn't have the cash to pay for professional signature-gatherers. This means voters are headed for a choice this November between current felony prohibition and the MPP bill.

Polk, Montgomery, and a number of AZFMR supporters want you to vote "no" on that bill.

While the position of the prohibitionists is easy to comprehend, it's not the case with the AZFMR supporters. Hein, for example, says he rejects the CRMLA, in part because it doesn't plan to do what it claims it will. Although the text of the initiative states that Arizonans 21 and older would be able to possess an ounce without legal penalty, that ounce still would be illegal under Arizona law, Hein claims.

"There is no language in I-8 that changes the language" of Arizona's current anti-cannabis law, ARS 13-3405. "If you don't change that, you're not changing prohibition. You create an environment in which people think it's legal, but it's not."

Possession of this plant is a felony in Arizona, and it'll stay that way unless voters approve cannabis reform at the ballot this November. AZFMR supporters say the current prohibition is actually better than the legalization bill expected to appear on the ballot.
Possession of this plant is a felony in Arizona, and it'll stay that way unless voters approve cannabis reform at the ballot this November. AZFMR supporters say the current prohibition is actually better than the legalization bill expected to appear on the ballot.
Psychonaught / Wikipedia

Hein says the idea that the MPP bill actually legalizes marijuana is undermined by "complex regulatory frameworks." 

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CRMLA representatives say that's nonsense, and that if voters approve the bill in November, adults 21 and older will, in fact, be able to possess an ounce legally under the law.

Dave Wisniewski, leader of Safer Arizona, refers frequently to the idea that the MPP bill is intentionally deceptive and will "bait" people into committing felonies. 

Both the legalization initiatives provide for felony charges for marijuana possession, but they differ on the amounts that trigger the charges: The AZFMR felony rule kicks in at more than eight ounces or 100 plants, while the CRMLA calls for a felony for possession of more than 2.5 ounces of dried pot, more than five grams of concentrates, or more than six plants.

The MPP bill also calls for treating black-market sellers of marijuana more harshly: The AZFMR bill reduces the penalty for pot dealing in many cases from a felony to a misdemeanor.

"I believe MPP's initiative is worse than our current prohibition," Wisniewski says. "So if you want to flip it and say prohibition is better than MPPs initiative, it's basically saying the same thing. I call it Jail Bait."

AZFMR's treasurer, Alexander Wick, won't go as far as saying that the MPP initiative is worse than current prohibition, in which possession of any amount of marijuana is a felony. He says it would be "biased" to assume that MPP's plan will be good for the state, and he rails against the group's alleged "lack of transparency."

He compares the initiative to last year's failed, non-MPP-affiliated legalization law in Ohio, which would have granted a true oligopoly on cannabis cultivation to just a few businesses.

"You think Arizona will not be outraged when the self interest and insensitivity to those it effects is truly transparent," he vents in a Facebook message. "AZ WILL BE MUCH ANGRIER THAN OHIO WAS."

Known for online bullying tactics and harsh rhetoric, Wick, Hein, Wisniewski, and other AZFMR supporters have flamed New Times for having the gall to suggest that the CRMLA might improve things for cannabis users in Arizona — and for publishing last month's list of reasons why activists should consider voting for the CRMLA measure in November if it's the only cannabis-reform bill on the ballot.

The truth: There is little to no evidence that approving the CRMLA initiative would be worse for cannabis users in Arizona.

On the other hand, MPP's success in Colorado and with Arizona's medical-marijuana law offers the voting public at least some evidence that the CRMLA is a real legalization law, albeit one that is far from perfect. Clearly, it enriches a bunch of local dispensary owners, but with more than 100 separate businesses operating Arizona's retail cannabis market initially under the law, there will be competition.  

To help advance their goal of shooting down the MPP bill in November, the AZFMR activists want to turn the question from prohibition v. legalization in Arizona to MPP or not MPP — and it's that latter question that also matters to Polk, Montgomery, and other Arizona cannabis prohibitionists.

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