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Second Arizona Marijuana-Legalization Group Wants 1,500 Pot Shops — but Do Voters?

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An alternative Arizona marijuana-legalization campaign made up of passionate cannabis users is aiming sky-high with its permissive proposal, but would voters really go for it?

Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, a grassroots organization that has a small army of volunteers but little money, is making a final push to make the ballot this November with its initiative that would allow up to 1,500 retail-shop licenses statewide to be issued by the end of next year. It would ban limits on cultivation or distribution licenses. Colorado, by comparison, now has about 950 medical-marijuana and recreational marijuana retail outlets.

AZFMR's leaders claim to have collected more than 100,000 signatures.

A much-better-funded effort backed by Arizona dispensaries and the national Marijuana Policy Project — the group that put the state's medical-marijuana law on the ballot in 2010 — uses the more tried-and-true method of paying petition gatherers. That effort, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona, is widely seen as having a good chance of landing on November's ballot. Both initiatives need to turn in 150,000 valid voter signatures by July 7.

The CRMLA initiative starts off conservatively, calling for a limit to the total number of retail licenses that would equal 10 percent of the number of liquor-store licenses in Arizona. That would be about 150, compared to the AZFMR's 100 percent of the liquor-store licenses. Many AZFMR supporters criticize the MPP heavily, marking it as too commercial and falling well short of the reform they'd like to see.

The grassroots initiative also allows possession limits that go well beyond the MPP's proposal.

Under the AZFMR prop, adults 21 and older could possess up to one ounce of marijuana or concentrated marijuana like hashish without penalty but would receive a $300 petty violation for between one and 2.5 ounces. For between 2.5 and eight ounces, it would be a misdemeanor, even if the person possessing the pot was selling it on the black market. More than eight ounces would remain a felony — unless the person cultivated the marijuana personally. In that case, an Arizona resident could possess an unlimited amount of pot for sale and face only a misdemeanor charge. (See 36-2866 of the AZFMR initiative, Violations; classification, second section eight.)

New Times and AZFMR-ites participated in a lively Facebook discussion following the March 28 listicle, "21 Reasons AZFMR Supporters Should Vote for Marijuana Policy Project Initiative." The group's most vocal supporter, Dave Wisniewski of the pro-cannabis group Safer Arizona and several other AZFMR-ites, took issue with the list, and Wisniewski even made a 30-minute video entitled, "Pot Activist Responds To Reporter's Upsetting Article."

The New Times article posed the scenario of having only the MPP bill on the ballot this November. But if the AZFMR bill makes the ballot, what are its chances of passage? A recent poll suggests the less-restrictive AZFMR bill might have a tougher challenge before voters.

The survey released on March 25 by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that a record 61 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization, but that a breakdown of the poll results showed "a considerable amount of nuance."

"Twenty-four percent of legalization supporters said marijuana should be made available 'only with a medical prescription,'" a Washington Post article about the poll stated. "Another 43 percent said there should be 'restrictions on purchase amounts.' And one-third of legalization supporters said there should be 'no restrictions' on purchase amounts."

Predictably, the poll found less support among Republicans than Democrats and Independents. That's a concern for cannabis-legalization proponents in Arizona, where "voters presently skew decidedly conservative," according to a November 2015 report by Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. While the new poll reveals the public's feeling toward legalization continues to improve, it also showed that medical marijuana laws still are more popular than a recreational one — and Arizona's medical-marijuana law barely made it on the books with just 4,341 more "yes" votes statewide.

"AZFMR regulates marijuana a lot closer to alcohol than MPP but does not claim to do so," Wisniewski said in a Facebook post over the weekend.

He argued that the MPP proposal would keep the price of marijuana artificially high by restricting the supply, which would "encourage black-market transactions."

Other AZFMR supporters argued that MPP's more-limited number of dispensaries wouldn't be able to serve the the incredible demand for legal marijuana, not anytime soon, at least. They point out that Colorado has about a million fewer residents so Arizona may need more retail outlets than Colorado to fulfill its demand.

Yet a spokesman for the CRMLA, Barrett Marson, says that the initiative backed by the MPP and Arizona dispensaries ensures "reasonable access to a marijuana dispensary" for the entire state. He adds that the initiative provides for an expansion of retail stores "if they are needed to meet the demand. But what we don't need is a dispensary on every other corner."

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