Pot-Prohibitionists' Poll Shows Legalization Could Fail In Arizona

Arizonans could reject "recreational marijuana" on the ballot this November, according to a poll released this week by a group that opposes the measure.

Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, led by Seth Leibsohn and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, commissioned the poll from Data Orbital, a company run by former Arizona Republican Party staffer George Khalaf.

Surveying 500 likely voters earlier this month, Data Orbital found that 43 percent of Arizonans would approve "legalizing recreational marijuana use" while 49 percent would reject it. Eight percent said they were undecided, meaning that even if those numbers reflect how voters actually will feel on November 6, it's what happens at the ballot box that counts.

Other polls have shown legalization doing marginally better in Arizona, or at least giving it a better shot. In December, Arizona State University's Morrison Institute released a poll showing a closer split of 51 percent opposed, 49 percent supporting, with a roughly 3 percent margin of error. However, that showed an abysmally low 29 percent support from Republicans.

As with other polls, Data Orbital's shows that young people and Democrats are far more likely to support legalized marijuana than older folks and Republicans.

"Arizonans are clearly leery of legalizing a drug identified as medicine for recreational purposes, and they should be," Polk said in a written statement.

Really, though, there's little reason for them to be leery. Colorado's been doing fine since legalizing marijuana for adult use in 2012. So have other recreational-use states and Washington D.C. A CBS News poll released on Wednesday revealed that support of legalization of marijuana has reached an all-time high. So why is Arizona's support for legalized marijuana apparently declining?

One possible answer is that it's not — that the poll's flawed.

Khalaf's got some interesting connections worth pointing out, though. He's the former political director and State Victory Director for the Arizona Republican Party. And he's an acolyte of right-wing strategist Sean Noble. His company, founded in 2014, has only published two previous polls, both related to the Republican primary in Congressional District Five.

But Khalaf stands firmly behind his poll, assuring New Times it adhered to normal standards for a random poll of voters — and even skewed it somewhat favorably toward Democrats by using baseline voter data from the Democrat-heavy 2012 general election.

J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, has doubts about the accuracy of the poll. The campaign has spent about half a million dollars so far, hiring petition gatherers who have reportedly collected more than 200,000 signatures already toward its goal of turning in 150,000 valid voter signatures by July 7. (Some signatures turn out to be invalid in practically any petition effort.)

This poll is "unique" by showing data that's contrary to other polls, Holyoak says.

He welcomes news about the poll, even if it's not accurate, because it sparks people to think about the issue of marijuana legalization.

The more conversation about the proposed initiative, Holyoak asserts, "the better off we are."

Overall chances of the measure succeeding still are good, he says. He points out that in 1996, 1998, and 2010, voters approved cannabis-law reform measures. And they'll do it again, he says.

Holyoak doesn't mention, however, the failed 2002 medical-marijuana bill that Arizona voters turned down.

Excitement is undeniable about the potential to regulate marijuana instead of having Arizona's cannabis consumers rely on the black market, he says. Holyoak says he's been approached at his daughter's school by people who recognize him and want to know where they can find a petition to sign.

He says the campaign intentionally has avoided using the terms "legalization" and "recreational use" in the material it publishes, even though he says "ultimately" the CRMLA is about legalization. He prefers the term "adult use" instead of "recreational." The CRMLA would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, five grams of concentrates, or six plants without penalty. It also sets up a system of retail shops, mostly converted medical-marijuana dispensaries, that would sell legal cannabis products.

Avoiding use of the word legalization is one sore point of Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, a second legalization campaign hoping to put its own, more-permissive measure on the November ballot.

But Holyoak says the goal is to educate the public that a substance already widely used will be regulated and taxed for the benefit of healthcare and schools.

Khalaf's poll shows that more voters are likely to support the bill once they learn that cannabis sales would be regulated and taxed for the benefit of Arizonans. Fewer are likely to support it if the measure includes a provision allowing up to 12 plants to be grown by individuals.

Khalaf says he wrote the question that way because the proposed AZFMR bill allows up to 12 plants.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.