Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego declared his support for an anticipated marijuana-legalization initiative on Monday, saying it would help minorities and the economy.
The 36-year-old Iraq War veteran and Democrat who represents Arizona's Seventh Congressional District has supported legalization for years. As a member of the state House of Representatives in 2014, Gallego introduced legislation that would have created freedoms similar to the ones in the planned initiative, including making possession of up to an ounce legal for adults 21 and older.
Representatives for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA) initiative say they're close to submitting the required number of valid voter signatures to qualify their measure for November's ballot. Besides legalizing personal-use amounts of marijuana and live plants, the measure would set up a system of retail stores where cannabis products would be sold and taxed. As New Times reported in May, the nonprofit Tax Foundation estimates that the 15 percent tax proposed by the CRMLA would bring in at least $113 million per year. The initiative directs most of the money to Arizona schools.
"I'm not a partaker," Gallego said at a mid-morning news conference on the State Capitol lawn. "I do believe, though, in the rule of law, and I do believe in individual liberty."
Regulating a substance many Arizonans already use will "make things safer" for everyone, Gallego argued. Fewer criminals would be involved in the marijuana trade, he argued. He also pointed to a provision in the initiative requiring that marijuana sold in retail outlets be tested for pesticides, which would protect customers.
It's not as if schools would be funded by someone else's misery, either. "Marijuana is objectively less harmful than other regulated products when used properly by adults," he said, noting that it's not linked to violent or reckless behavior like alcohol is.
A particular concern for Gallego is the fact that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for marijuana crimes. Minorities are eight times more likely to be hauled off to jail for a drug offense than white people, he asserted.
Legalization has a good chance of passing this year, said Gallego, predicting that Democrats and supporters of Republican candidate Donald Trump alike will come out in favor of the measure.
Gallego is co-sponsoring legislation introduced by Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer that would allow Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss marijuana as a possible treatment. Passed in May as part of a veterans appropriations bill, the amendment now awaits President Obama's signature.
Meanwhile, Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon knocked legalization in a short video released on Monday by Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a group led by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk that opposes the CRMLA measure.
The first objection voiced by the Republican Congressman is heavily ironic: "At a time when government should be shrinking and we should be having less government in our lives, the last thing I want to see is one more initiative that creates other levels of government."
You heard right: After the massive expansion of government in recent decades to deny Americans the freedom to use or possess marijuana, this conservative politician is worried about government expansion caused by affirming individual rights.
True, the CRMLA does create a new branch of government, the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control, to regulate legal use. But overall, legalization would reduce the amount of time police officers, jail guards, prosecutors, and judges spend processing marijuana cases, each of which now begins as a felony.
Then Salmon goes off on a tear about "accidents on the school grounds, or accidents in workplace" and questions whether the money made from taxing marijuana will offset such costs. Yet he offers no evidence to back his argument and fails to counterbalance it with the cost to society of young people who have difficulty finding good jobs owing to marijuana-possession convictions.
New Times e-mailed Salmon asking for comment and will update this story if and when we hear back.
Watch Republican Congressman Matt Salmon argue against legalizing marijuana for personal use: