Arizona Pro-Marijuana Group AZFMR Halts 2016 Legalization Effort

A grassroots Arizona cannabis-legalization campaign halted its drive for a 2016 ballot measure on Wednesday after failing to reach its signature-collection goals.

Campaign manager Jason Medar confirmed in an April 12 blog post that Arizonans for Mindful Regulation wasn't gathering petitions fast enough to make the July 7 deadline to turn in more than 150,000 valid voter signatures. Yesterday, in an unsigned article on the group's website, the group announced that it's throwing in the towel for this year but will return with a vengeance in 2018.

And, as Medar and other supporters have long threatened, AZFMR is launching a "vote no" campaign against its most-hated enemy: the well-funded Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona, which is backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project and local dispensaries.

The CRMLA, in contrast to AZFMR, tapped into a budget of nearly $1 million to run a standard campaign with paid petition gatherers and is on target to make the November ballot.

Although the Marijuana Policy Project brought Arizona voters the 2010 Medical Marijuana Act and Colorado's 2012 recreational-cannabis law, AZFMR supporters say the MPP-backed bill represents "fake" legalization because it features less-permissive rules than the AZFMR plan.

AZFMR's measure, the Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, was similar to the CRMLA in that both would set up a new government agency to oversee a system of cannabis retail stores, and both would legalize possession of personal amounts of live plants or cannabis products. They started out as the same bill, actually, but Medar and the more-hardcore cannabis supporters split with MPP last year and created their own initiative. The measures wound up with key differences: For instance, AZFMR offered licenses for up to 1,500 retail stores statewide (instead of the CRMLA's 150 or so), had no possession limits for marijuana grown in the home, and reduced legal penalties for black-market cannabis dealers.

The campaign thanked the "200+ volunteers and the 100+ Arizona businesses" who helped collect signatures, and those who contributed financially to the effort. Money was always tight for AZFMR. Campaign-finance records show the group collected just $5,000 in cash as of January 31, and received about $7,000 in donated goods and services.

"Despite not making the 2016 ballot, we truly believe that this 2016 Campaign was a SUCCESS!" the message on AZFMR's site states.

By the group's running tally, it has collected 114,240 signatures.

In a nod to supporters who don't want their previous contributions going to the "no on CRMLA" effort, AZFMR says it will only use money collected after today that's designated specifically for the "no" campaign.

"If you previously made a financial contribution to our 'Campaign to Legalize Marijuana,' that money stays with THAT Campaign," the message reads. "If you want to make a financial contribution to the Vote NO Campaign, you will need to make a new contribution."

AZFMR also promises that "[i]n addition to doing the Vote NO Campaign, we'll also be working to persuade the Arizona Legislature to pass our Marijuana Decriminalization bill prior to the vote in November 2016."

Medar didn't immediately return a message requesting comment for this story. 

A September 2015 New Times feature article showed AZFMR volunteers and supporters to be passionate about their beliefs, sometimes to the point of belligerence. David Wisniewski, leader of the local pro-cannabis group Safer Arizona and staunch AZFMR defender, posted several videos on his blog about New Times' articles that took issue with the group's uncompromising political stance.

Wisniewski states in a video posted on Facebook on Wednesday that he's pushing for a "no" vote on the CRMLA because it would be "way too easy for the average person to break the law" by accidentally buying an amount of cannabis that would trigger a felony charge. Police, he notes, would continue to have an incentive to hassle cannabis consumers.

"Yes, we will see a decrease in arrests in simple possession, but we expect to see an increase in arrests for cultivation," he says in the video. "So is it worth it?"

Mikel Weisser, state director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says it's well worth it, because police arrest roughly 16,000 people a year on possession charges. Possession of any amount of marijuana by anyone other than a medical-use cardholder is currently a felony in Arizona. As New Times has reported, police in Arizona make a felony arrest any time marijuana is found, and adults are typically booked into jail, then released. The charge is often thrown out or reduced after the defendant agrees to pay fines and enroll in a drug-rehabilitation program.

Weisser split from Safer Arizona — or was asked to leave, depending on whom you talk to — exactly one year ago. But in his role as the group's political director, he warned against dividing the pro-cannabis community. Now, he says, it's time for everyone to work together to help the CRMLA succeed.

"I strongly urge Jason Medar to reconsider becoming a prohibitionist," Weisser says. "He's taken the community down the wrong path."

Weisser says he empathizes with AZFMR supporters who got "all revved up," only to see their effort stopped. He knows the feeling, because back when Weisser and Safer Arizona got along, the group campaigned for an ultimately unsuccessful signature drive for a marijuana-legalization campaign in 2014. At this point, "we've got to unite," he says.

Wisniewski tells New Times that "only AZFMR leadership backed away" from the initiative and many volunteers refuse to quit.

"The volunteers are still going to be collecting signatures," he notes. "A lot of people are pissed off at Jason."

J.P. Holyoak, chair of the CRMLA and a local medical-marijuana dispensary principal, says he won't "gloat at somebody else's failure. The simple realization is that it takes substantial dollars to run a successful campaign."

Now that it's certain the AZFMR measure won't be on the ballot this year, Holyoak says, it would be "silly" and "petty" for cannabis supporters to vote against the CRMLA.

The campaign has significantly exceeded 200,000 signatures, Holyoak reports. "We're just going to run the campaign like we always intended."
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.