Former ADHS Chief: Marijuana Initiative Narrowly Avoided a Potential Poison Pill

If an initiative for adult-use marijuana in Arizona passes in 2020, edibles sold to nonmedical users will be limited to 10 milligrams of THC per serving, and 100 milligrams per package.
If an initiative for adult-use marijuana in Arizona passes in 2020, edibles sold to nonmedical users will be limited to 10 milligrams of THC per serving, and 100 milligrams per package. Nate Nichols
The ballot initiative for recreational marijuana in Arizona was re-filed on Tuesday with changes that include avoiding a word choice that former Arizona Department of Health Services Chief Will Humble said "could have been a real vote-killer" for the highly anticipated proposal.

The new version of the Smart and Safe Arizona Act makes a tiny shift in wording in the middle of the document that dramatically redefines the measure’s rules around edible marijuana potency limits.

The original text filed in August said the DHS “may not limit the strength of an edible marijuana product to less than ten milligrams” of THC per serving.

In other words, in determining the strength of an edible for nonmedical use, the state health agency would have to define a single dose as 10 milligrams or more.

While some edibles do carry large doses of THC, the industry standard among states that have legalized recreational marijuana is between five and 10 milligrams per serving. Oregon’s standard is five, while Washington, Nevada, Colorado, and California use 10.

Considering many new cannabis users find themselves high off five or fewer milligrams of THC, only allowing higher doses for recreational users “made no sense,” Humble said. “I honestly have no idea what they were thinking.”

The revised text of the measure issued Tuesday reverses that requirement, saying DHS “shall limit the strength of an edible product to no more than ten milligrams” per serving.

Both versions of the initiative stipulate that a package of edible marijuana can have no more than 100 milligrams of THC.

Stacy Pearson, the spokeswoman for the measure and senior vice president of public relations firm Strategies 360, said the original text wasn’t a mistake, but that the writers had assumed the DHS would set the potency limit at exactly 10 milligrams per serving.

Humble said he thinks critics might have “seized on” that wording in the measure had it not been changed, "and rightly so."

Dispensary owners, too, applaud Tuesday's change, particularly because the recreational marijuana measure wouldn’t affect medical marijuana laws, which don’t limit THC levels per serving or per package.

“It’s incredibly responsible of the initiative,” said Steve Cottrell, president of the cannabis brand Curaleaf in Arizona. “The medical marijuana high-potency edibles are not going anywhere. For adult use, it’s good public policy.”

So, medical users will still be able to get their fix of THC if they need it. But there is one class of people the measure would affect if it passes next fall: edible manufacturers.

Take, for example, Amy and Al’s, the maker of a 400-milligram brownie sold at Sun City’s White Mountain Health Center.

That brownie is “delicious and potent,” according to Ethan Kleinknecht, the company’s wholesale manager. He said it’s also what the company is known for — high dosage of THC without sacrificing taste.

But he said he won't mind if the recreational measure passes and the company has to shift focus to 100-milligram products with smaller, more regulated servings.

“We’re all about that, making sure people are taking safe doses,” he said.

Additional changes to the measure allow more past offenders with marijuana-related charges to qualify for record expungement, including those who have been convicted for up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, instead of just 1 ounce, and would also issue 26 additional dispensary licenses for communities “disproportionately impacted” by past marijuana laws.

The campaign, sponsored by state dispensaries, needs to gather 237,645 valid voter signatures by July 2 to make the November 2020 ballot.
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Ali Swenson was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.