Safer Arizona's 'Band of Stoners' Splits Pro-Pot Proponents With 2018 Legalization Effort

Supporters of Safer Arizona held a march on Saturday in conjunction with the national "Million Marijuana March."
Supporters of Safer Arizona held a march on Saturday in conjunction with the national "Million Marijuana March." Courtesy of David Wisniewski
Pro-marijuana activist David Wisniewski pointed out repeatedly last year that Prop 205, the adult-use marijuana initiative, did not have the full support of the cannabis-consuming community.

Now he's running a new legalization campaign that has the same problem.

The Safer Arizona 2018 recreational-marijuana initiative campaign has been getting positive press lately, including an article in Saturday's Arizona Republic that claimed, "Recreational Marijuana May be Headed Back to the Ballot."

The reality, though, is that key legalization proponents believe Safer Arizona isn't likely to collect enough signatures to make the ballot — and they have little or no intention of helping to make it happen.

These proponents tend to be older than Wisniewski and Safer Arizona's other leaders. They see the group's less-than-professional image and ballot measure as an obstacle to the legalization movement, and one that feeds the stereotype of cannabis consumers as politically unsophisticated hippies.

click to enlarge David Wisniewski - COURTESY OF DAVID WISNIEWSKI
David Wisniewski
Courtesy of David Wisniewski
"Folks like these are the reason Arizona may never be legal," said Kathy Inman of the pro-cannabis MomForce. "Unfortunately, these are just the types that keep the stereotypes alive and enable people like [Yavapai County Attorney] Sheila Polk to look like a hero ... It is super-frustrating. I have had to fight the grassroots as much as I have the prohibitionists."

Inman recalled how Safer Arizona members lowered expectations of cannabis users by showing up at meetings last year of Matforce, a Prescott-area anti-marijuana organization that Polk helps lead.

"The Safer crowd will not wear regular clothes — they insist on coming to Matforce events looking like a band of stoners, and sit there smug like they know everything," she said. "I want to include everyone in our events, but I have had serious messages blighted by their [homemade] signs ... The Republic and [Maricopa County Attorney Bill] Montgomery just love their campaign."

Bitterness clearly remains at the way Wisniewski and his group members railed against Prop 205 in the run-up to the election. They echoed the questionable messages of Arizonans for Mindful Regulation (AZFMR), which ran its own failed legalization campaign in 2016 and strongly opposed Prop 205.

For instance, Wisniewski claimed in public messages that Prop 205 was worse for Arizona's cannabis community than the current felony prohibition, even though the measure would have eliminated about 16,000 felony arrests each year for minor possession. (See clarification on this below.)

Mikel Weisser, director of the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said he has strong concerns about the text of Safer Arizona's measure, especially when combined with the small scale of the campaign.

The Safer Arizona measure provides for unlimited possession, reduced penalties for black-market sales, and liberal cultivation rules. Wisniewski claimed this week that the group already has gathered more than 5,000 signatures since launching in February. But he admitted that the group needs to step up its pace to meet the signature goal by July 2018.

Campaign finance reports show the effort is severely underfunded, bringing in donations of $906 from January 1 to March 31. By comparison, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy raised nearly $6.5 million to defeat Prop 205.

Weisser doesn't think NORML should get behind Safer Arizona's 2018 ballot measure. The language of Safer Arizona's measure is too "out there" to have wide appeal, and the group has a poor "track record" of success, he said.

"I don't want to get people to commit their hearts and souls to something that doesn't work," he said. "It's absolutely true that the AZFMR-Safer Arizona effort last year alienated all institutional marijuana supporters — the industry, the mainstream activists. All of these people pushed away consciously. Then, they come back this year and expect people to get on board with their program. It's not going to help."

Weisser added that he wants to make sure his decision isn't guided by his own emotions, so he's sending the text of the measure to national NORML experts for a second opinion.

He helped found Safer Arizona in 2013, and helped lead its failed legalization measure of 2014. As he admitted last year, he was "basically fired" from Safer Arizona over the division between cannabis supporters of Prop 205, which was backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project and local dispensaries, and of AZFMR's initiative.

After the failure of Prop 205, NORML founder Keith Stroup asked Weisser to "heal the fractured community," he said.

"I want to do my best to do that, but I have great concerns that [Safer Arizona] will be on board with anything," Weisser said. "They've got a lot of burnt bridges to fix."

Wisniewski denied that any significant division existed in the pro-legalization community, but he acknowledged that "some people are bitter. They are afraid to support us ... Maybe a couple of dispensary owners don't like the free-market aspect."

Indeed, if Safer Arizona's measure somehow managed to get on the ballot and pass into law, the current medical-marijuana dispensary industry in Arizona would face nearly unrestricted competition.

The measure would allow any homeowner to grow 48 plants, for example. Wisniewski said the homeowner would be banned from selling marijuana from the residence, but the measure states that a violation could be subject only to a civil fine of up to $300.

If another group "competes against us" with a different legalization measure for 2018, "I'm going to promote unity, but we're not going to stop our campaign," he said.

However, he said, even unity won't be possible if the hypothetical second 2018 initiative] "sucks."

Weisser said he does expect a more mainstream legalization measure to appear for the 2018 or 2020 election, and that it's possible Safer Arizona may lead its followers to reject that measure.

"I live in dread of that moment," he said.

Demitri Downing, director of Arizona's Marijuana Trade Industry Association (MITA), said that voters may get an alternative to Safer Arizona's measure in 2018, but he can't divulge details yet.

MITA doesn't oppose Safer Arizona's effort, he said.

"We're aware of a number of other groups looking to run an initiative more palatable to mainstream interests," said Downing, a former prosecuting attorney and son of former Arizona Representative Ted Downing, (D-Tucson). "Things like employer rights, local control over zoning and use, proper respect for law enforcement interests — if an initiative allows for that, it will be more likely to pass."

Downing said Safer Arizona gives short shrift to dispensary owners "who have invested millions" in their businesses, and hinted that dispensaries could oppose the group's initiative.

"If you don't at least respect them, they probably aren't going to like what you're doing — especially if your initiative gives them the middle finger," he said.

(Clarification: About half of the people arrested locally on suspicion of felony marijuana possession were also committing another crime, statistics show, making it unclear whether they definitely would not have been arrested without the marijuana.)
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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.