What Were They Smoking? Safer Arizona Leaders Admit 2018 Pot Initiative Flawed

What Were They Smoking? Safer Arizona Leaders Admit 2018 Pot Initiative FlawedEXPAND
Ray Stern

Organizers of a campaign to legalize marijuana in 2018 acknowledged on Friday that the initiative they filed with the state this week has key flaws that need changing.

Worse, the foul-up helps show how tough it will be for the volunteers and die-hard cannabis lovers behind the effort to actually put something on the ballot.

The actions of Safer Arizona are already being viewed skeptically by other cannabis-legalization supporters in Arizona.

The campaign's leader, David Wisniewski, and other top Safer Arizona members worked previously with Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, the grassroots group that launched its own 2016 initiative before helping to shoot down Prop 205 in November.

Whether Safer Arizona's latest plan will succeed is anyone's guess. But the odds are stacked against it.

The Safer Arizona Cannabis Legalization Act (see below) is far more permissive than the failed Prop 205, which voters rejected 52 percent to 48 percent.

To say the least.

"Our initiative makes 205 look like straight-up fascism," Wisniewski said  Friday.

The basics include: full repeal of current marijuana laws, unlimited possession, decriminalized black-market sales, nearly unlimited cultivation by people and businesses, and nearly unregulated commercial sales and cultivation.

The group needs to collect more than 150,000 valid signatures of state voters by July 2018 to make the ballot.

Wisniewski drew a flood of media attention on Thursday when he filed his initiative at the headquarters of the Arizona Secretary of State's Office in Phoenix.

On Friday, he admitted the initiative actually goes too far, despite it having gone through several reviews by Safer Arizona's leaders.

For instance, the initiative allows sales and cultivation of marijuana to occur next to schools, but federal authorities demand a 1,000-foot buffer.

Wisniewski said he learned recently that federal authorities would likely raid operations next to schools.

A technical change that also needs to be made, he said, will put the part about adults being able to grow 48 plants at home in another section of the initiative.

But after New Times raised questions on Friday about the initiative's penalties for cannabis sales to minors, Tom Dean, an Arizona attorney and Safer Arizona's legal director, said that more changes may be necessary.

Under the initiative, adults who knowingly sell cannabis to children of any age would be guilty of nothing more than a civil violation, with a maximum $2,500 fine. Children who sell to other children would only get a $500 fine.

Dean said that part of the initiative may also be changed when the group refiles its updated initiative, something Wisniewski said should happen on Monday.

Dean asked New Times to let him know about anything else in the filing that he should address.

As a matter of fact, there are a couple of other things.

Although the initiative caps the number of plants that individuals can grow at 48, commercial operations — which could be run out of a person's home — have no plant limit. Commercial sales under the initiative would require no permits or licenses other than obtaining the same state retail tax license required by any retail business.

No violation is ever subject to more than a civil penalty and $500 fine.

Talk about a free-for-all.

Then there's the lack of environmental regulation: The initiative generally prohibits any government inspection of commercial cultivation operations.

Further, it allows people to run cannabis food-manufacturing operations out of their homes. And whether at a home or commercial property, entrepreneurs "shall never under any pretext be denied or restricted the right to sell and dispose of their products" beyond the initiative's very limited restrictions.

Under Prop 205, adults 21 and older would have been allowed to possess up to an ounce of buds and five grams of concentrates, or grow up to six plants, with no penalty.

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"Viability with voters is going to be the big issue with this initiative," said Demitri Downing, founder and executive director of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association, which represents local medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Downing said he has met with members of Safer Arizona and found them to be uncompromising. By that, he means both in terms of pleasing voters, and the association's well-entrenched businesses, which in theory could be driven under by the initiative.

"They are pretty hard-headed," he said of Safer Arizona's leaders. "I gave up trying to convince them to incorporate mainstream ideas and industry acknowledgment. You cannot just destroy an industry. That ain't cool."

It's far from certain that voters will ever have a chance to give the plan a thumbs-up.

The grassroots effort stands in marked contrast to the campaign conducted by the people and groups behind Prop 205.

Though ultimately unsuccessful, Prop 205 was put on the ballot by Arizona medical-marijuana dispensaries and the national Marijuana Policy Project, the organization behind most of the state laws in recent years legalizing medical or recreational cannabis.

The campaign raised more than $5 million for advertising and to pay signature gatherers, campaign consultants and workers, lawyers, and marketing experts.

Wisniewski said he expects to do it all with volunteers.

More than 300 people have expressed interest in volunteering, he said. But he readily admits the group has little money: "We have 3,500 bucks in the bank, but that's not enough."

Wisniewski also admits he's never managed anything nearly this big before. Asked what he has managed, he said he led soldiers as a sergeant in the Army. But he realizes that leading civilians is more difficult.

Also, his Army experience isn't his resume's brightest spot, though he did face "indirect" fire as a heating and air-conditioning worker in Iraq, he said.

He admits he had to resign because of alcohol abuse.

"They told me, 'You're too drunk for the Army — go home,'" he states candidly.

Wisniewski told other media he has post-traumatic stress disorder that he treats with cannabis.

Wisniewski has a team of volunteers helping with the effort, like Dean and Mickey Jones, the author of two 2016 drug-law-reform initiatives that gained relatively few signatures.

They and others at Safer Arizona helped divide the cannabis community's support of Prop 205, and are one reason that voters rejected the proposition in November.

For example, in an opinion article still up on Safer Arizona's website, Wisniewski argues that the MPP "is lying to Arizona" and that its initiative would be "worse than our current prohibition."

Mikel Weisser, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was one of the leaders of Safer Arizona in 2014. That year, Safer Arizona ran its own legalization initiative, but it failed to collect enough signatures.

Weisser had a falling-out with Safer Arizona when Wisniewski led the group into an alliance with Arizonans for Mindful Regulation (AZFMR), which tried to put its own initiative on the ballot in 2016 and opposed Prop 205.

He quit Safer Arizona, (or was fired, depending on who you believe), preferring to work with the plan formulated by the MPP and dispensaries.

Weisser said he hopes to "bury the hatchet" with Safer Arizona, but he stops short of endorsing it. He doesn't believe the group understands how difficult it will be to make the ballot.

"There were people working everywhere on 205," Weisser said. "Until Safer can get to that level of public support, they're not going anywhere."

AZFMR's initiative campaign collapsed without collecting anywhere near enough signatures to make the 2016 ballot, and the group kept its promise to oppose Prop 205.

Wisniewski said he "might not be opposed" to another legalization initiative in 2018.

Kathy Inman, leader of the pro-cannabis group MomForce, is another cannabis-rights activist who has sparred with Wisniewski and Safer Arizona.

She's still steamed about the group's opposition to the failed initiative, noting that if it had passed, the cannabis plants she would have grown for herself would now be about two months old.

She called the group's initiative "outlandish," adding that "this is not something I will be collecting signatures for."

She doesn't think the group will raise any money, either.

"The donors are broke from 205," she said.

Yet if by some miracle Safer Arizona's plan makes the ballot, Inman said she'd vote for it.


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