Top 5 Flaws of Arizona's Marijuana-Legalization Initiative

The two main issues behind a cannabis-legalization law set to make the ballot this November are 1. individual freedom, and 2. an end to felony prohibition for possession of marijuana for personal use.

But if voters approve it, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act would do more than just make Arizona's cannabis law sane. True to its name, the proposed law attempts to do a lot of regulating. And it sets up a system of retail shops to be run by existing medical-marijuana dispensary owners.

A complicated piece of legislation that protects existing dispensary owners? Yes, Arizona could do better. Yet compared to the current status of zero-tolerance felony — well, half a joint is better than no weed at all, to coin a phrase.

That said, here are the initiative's top five flaws ...

5. It doesn't repeal the laws that make marijuana possession a felony offense in Arizona, as some cannabis-consuming critics have pointed out. While it would no longer be a felony to possess within certain limits, going over the limits puts you in felony territory. This creates an incentive for police to hassle you if they find pot on you and conduct a more thorough search in the hope of finding enough for a felony bust. Under the RTMA, people under 21 would face a felony for possession of more than one ounce, while for adults the felonies would start at more than 2.5 ounces or five grams of concentrates. The State Legislature would still have work to do in ending felony prohibition for possession once and for all. 
4. For less than an ounce, the law would make underage possession (or purchase) of cannabis a less-serious offense than it would be if the substance were alcohol. Given that current Arizona law makes possession or purchase of alcohol a misdemeanor, applying the same system to pot would make for better public policy — even if it means alienating some 18- to 20-year-old voters.

3. It creates an exclusive club of marijuana sellers (at least at first). The new retail cannabis stores, owned almost entirely by current medical-marijuana companies, would number about 150 until a possible expansion after September 1, 2021. The law would allow cities to limit the number of retail stores to the existing number of medical-marijuana dispensaries. Put those potential prohibitions together with the fact that the RTMA calls for public hearings before the issuance of any new licenses, and it's easy to imagine how expansion might be slow to occur.

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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.