Some AZ Democrats Embrace National Party's New Stance on Pot Legalization

The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia has adopted a bold pro-marijuana platform that could have an effect on Arizona's upcoming legalization vote.

With heavy input from Bernie Sanders supporters, the draft of the platform document was publicized earlier this month and showed a heavy lean to the left wing of the party. Regarding marijuana, the draft suggested a move toward the type of legal tolerance that polls show most Americans want.

The platform was approved at the convention on Monday. Despite reported concerns from Hillary Clinton's camp, the language from the draft document regarding marijuana remained intact.

"Because of conflicting federal and state laws concerning marijuana, we encourage the federal
government to remove marijuana from the list of 'Schedule 1' federal controlled substances and to appropriately regulate it, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization," the now-official party platform states.

The platform stops short of endorsing adult-use marijuana initiatives that will be on the ballot this year in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. But it comes close: "We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize it or provide access to medical marijuana should be able to do so.

"We support policies that will allow more research on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty," the platform continues. "And we recognize our current marijuana laws have had an unacceptable disparate impact in terms of arrest rates for African Americans that far outstrip arrest rates for whites, despite similar usage rates."

The document also demands more drug courts and diversion programs to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of prison.

"The 'war on drugs' has led to the imprisonment of millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, without reducing drug use," it reads.

Of course, the platform only provides guidance to Democratic candidates. They don't have to follow it. Nevertheless, the clear direction about the rights of marijuana consumers and the failure of the drug war may have long-term implications whichever political side becomes dominant after November's vote, says Mikel Weisser, president of Arizona's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In the short term, Weisser says, its marijuana message might embolden local Democratic candidates to speak up in favor of the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, the Colorado-style marijuana-legalization initiative expected to be on Arizona's ballot in November.

Weisser, who is in Philadelphia this week as a delegate for Bernie Sanders and is also a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Congressional District Four, says each section of the 55-page platform had to be approved in separate votes, and that the marijuana section was approved by the slimmest of margins: 81 to 80.

"I was really thrilled to see it slide through with no final contention," he says. A couple of weeks ago, when the draft was still being debated, he notes, "The Hillary people tried to trim the language even more."

Thousands of copies of the platform could be found all over the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, and Weisser has no doubt it was well-read by the Democratic delegates at the convention.

Dennis Obduskey's July 12 Facebook post about his efforts to include pro-cannabis language in the Democratic Party platform draft document.
Dennis Obduskey's July 12 Facebook post about his efforts to include pro-cannabis language in the Democratic Party platform draft document.

Cannabis advocates can thank platform committee member Dennis Obduskey of Park County, Colorado, for pushing the marijuana section.

"Hard to believe MY AMENDMENT to the Democratic Party National Platform made national news! On Saturday, we won on an amendment to remove marijuana as a Class 1 Controlled Substance!" Obduskey posted on Facebook earlier this month

"We have so many people in jail because of marijuana use," Obduskey told the Denver Post on Monday. "We need to get this as a national policy and stop screwing around with it."

Several Democratic candidates for Congress in Arizona agree with that concept.

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"As a doctor, I know that putting marijuana in the same category as heroin or methamphetamines doesn’t match up with the science, and the penalties for possession can be extreme and disproportionately affect minority populations," says Matt Heinz, a physician and former state lawmaker who's vying for the Democratic nod to oppose Republican incumbent Martha McSally for the seat in Congressional District Two.

Heinz says marijuana has been shown to reduce the use of narcotics for pain control, which could lead to a drop in opiate addiction, and he'd like to see more research on cannabis' potential to treat illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder. Most important, he says, state voters should be allowed to decide the issue for themselves.

That last issue is also a key factor for Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents Arizona's First Congressional District.

"I think it's critical that Arizona voters have the right to decide for themselves about marijuana legalization, just as they did when they passed Prop. 203 in 2010, which legalized medical marijuana in our state," Kirkpatrick says. But she adds a caveat: "As a former prosecutor, I have seen firsthand the need for tough policies to ensure marijuana stays out of the hands of children and that we crack down on use while driving."

Kirkpatrick, who's running against John McCain for the U.S. Senate, offered no opinion about the new platform's "pathway for future legalization" or whether she believes voters should approve or reject the RTMA, which is sponsored by the national Marijuana Policy Project and local medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Rep. Ruben Gallego is the only member of Arizona's Congressional delegation who's a strong supporter for marijuana freedoms. Gallego announced his support for the Arizona initiative in a news conference in late June

Other Democrats seemed reticent on Tuesday to take a stance on the party platform or Arizona's legalization proposal.

Enrique Gutierrez, spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, declined to comment about the national party platform stance on marijuana. He says the ADP has not passed a resolution on either that or the state's pending legalization measure, and that he's unsure when any such votes might take place.

Some other candidates for Democratic posts in the state didn't return messages New Times left with their campaign staff. Victoria Steele, a former TV reporter who's facing off with Matt Heinz in the August 30 Democratic primary for CD-2, didn't call back. (McSally did not return our call, either.) Nor did Tom O'Halleran, a former Republican state lawmaker who's running for Congress as a Democrat in Arizona's CD-1.

Some AZ Democrats Embrace National Party's New Stance on Pot LegalizationEXPAND
Courtesy of Mikel Weisser

Now that the national party says legalization is a reasonable goal in America, more Democratic politicians may feel comfortable talking about it. But the issue can still sometimes be politically radioactive, Weisser says.

"There's a fear of not getting votes," he says of politicians who might agree with the idea of legalization but aren't speaking out. "And then there's 'reefer madness.' People have been trained to be afraid, to be very afraid, of marijuana."

Yet the mood at the convention seemed very welcoming to marijuana and its related issues, he emphasizes.

On Monday, cannabis activists carried two giant "joints," each 51 feet long, through downtown Philadelphia to demand federal legalization. With the Democratic Party spearheading the "pathway," it may only be a matter of time.

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