Legalized Marijuana and Ballot Initiatives Under Attack in Arizona Legislature

Some members of the Arizona Legislature apparently think the people of the state can’t handle the responsibility of direct democracy, especially when it comes to legalizing marijuana.

Four new measures, authored primarily by Republican state representatives Bob Thorpe and J.D. Mesnard, chisel away at the power of the people to create or change Arizona law.

As it stands, Arizona law is clear that ballot initiatives and referendums passed by the people cannot be vetoed by the governor or overturned by the Legislature — this is all spelled out in the Voter Protection Act, which was put on the ballot and passed by the people in 1998 — but that doesn’t seem to stop state lawmakers.
  • HCR 2043 says lawmakers can change anything future voters enact if a segment of the Legislature proportionate to the percentage of voters who passed the initiative support the change — for example, if a ballot initiative passes with 67 percent of the vote, lawmakers can overturn it if 67 percent of the Legislature approves doing so. 
  • HCR 2023 allows a voter initiative to be overturned or altered if three-fifths of both chambers vote in favor of doing so. It also gives the legislature the power to undo or alter past voter initiatives. 
  • HCR 2047 stipulates that for a voter initiative to get on the ballot, at least 25 percent of the required signatories must be from more rural counties, which would make it more difficult to collect enough signatures.
  • And, finally, HCR 2024 says that the people have a right to pass initiatives and referendums through simple majority except if those “initiatives or referendums [propose] a law that legalizes the recreational use of a drug that had been considered a controlled substance under the federal law at any time during 2014.” For an initiative like that to pass, it would require more than three-fifths of the vote and the support of the governor. 
In short, if marijuana legalization makes it onto the November ballot and the people pass it, these measures — and HCR 2024, in particular — would practically guarantee it doesn’t become law. (Luckily, these measures are resolutions, not bills, meaning if they pass through the Legislature, it will still be up to the people to vote them into law.)

“I believe this a blatant gesture of disrespect to the people of Arizona. These officials are elected to represent us so when we the people pass something its because we want it. To attempt to undermine [voters] is simply corrupt policy,” Dave Wisniewski of legalization proponent Safer Arizona writes in an e-mail to New Times. “These politicians need to sober up and understand where the country is headed on cannabis reform and why.”

J.P. Holyoak of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol agrees, calling these bills a blatant attempt to undo the Voter Protection Act. He explains the entire reason the VPA came about was because the people passed a ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana in 1996, and then the Legislature overturned it the following year.

Predictably, citizens across the state were furious, and eventually John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, began the successful ballot initiative that became the 1998 Voter Protection Act.

“The state Legislature ever since 1998 has been upset about it,” Holyoak says, “but if they hadn’t overturned medical marijuana in 1997, the Voter Protection Act wouldn’t exist today.”

The VPA “has been very important since being passed, and what I think state legislators don’t understand . . . is that every time something passes at the ballot it represents a failure by the Legislature to do something the people wanted.

“Voters are never going to take the handcuffs off [willingly] because we don’t trust [legislators],” he adds.

Holyoak says the grand irony of the whole situation is the inherent hypocrisy of many lawmakers, though he points to Thorpe in particular:

“So much of what he does is about state’s rights and limiting the federal government, but on this issue, he’s asking for more government” because it suits his needs.

While Thorpe did not respond to requests for comment, he did tell KJZZ News that he thinks the voter-initiative process needs more oversight in case a really bad law passes:

“You could have a kid in sixth-grade write a referendum. And if it’s marketed correctly to the voters, it could get passed without any kind of oversight, any kind of vetting.”

Bottom line, says Paul Bender, a former dean of the Arizona State University Law School and current professor of U.S. and Arizona constitutional law courses, state lawmakers hate voter initiatives because it takes power out of their hands.

“They don’t want to conform with a major aspect of [Arizona’s] constitution — that people can veto or enact legislation because people are the ultimate legislators. [They prefer to] go to war with things they don’t like rather than accept them.”

**Editor's Note: This article has been updated.
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser