Top 5 Flaws of Arizona's Marijuana-Legalization Initiative

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The two main issues behind a cannabis-legalization law set to make the ballot this November are 1. individual freedom, and 2. an end to felony prohibition for possession of marijuana for personal use.

But if voters approve it, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act would do more than just make Arizona's cannabis law sane. True to its name, the proposed law attempts to do a lot of regulating. And it sets up a system of retail shops to be run by existing medical-marijuana dispensary owners.

A complicated piece of legislation that protects existing dispensary owners? Yes, Arizona could do better. Yet compared to the current status of zero-tolerance felony — well, half a joint is better than no weed at all, to coin a phrase.

That said, here are the initiative's top five flaws ...

5. It doesn't repeal the laws that make marijuana possession a felony offense in Arizona, as some cannabis-consuming critics have pointed out. While it would no longer be a felony to possess within certain limits, going over the limits puts you in felony territory. This creates an incentive for police to hassle you if they find pot on you and conduct a more thorough search in the hope of finding enough for a felony bust. Under the RTMA, people under 21 would face a felony for possession of more than one ounce, while for adults the felonies would start at more than 2.5 ounces or five grams of concentrates. The State Legislature would still have work to do in ending felony prohibition for possession once and for all. 

4. For less than an ounce, the law would make underage possession (or purchase) of cannabis a less-serious offense than it would be if the substance were alcohol. Given that current Arizona law makes possession or purchase of alcohol a misdemeanor, applying the same system to pot would make for better public policy — even if it means alienating some 18- to 20-year-old voters.

3. It creates an exclusive club of marijuana sellers (at least at first). The new retail cannabis stores, owned almost entirely by current medical-marijuana companies, would number about 150 until a possible expansion after September 1, 2021. The law would allow cities to limit the number of retail stores to the existing number of medical-marijuana dispensaries. Put those potential prohibitions together with the fact that the RTMA calls for public hearings before the issuance of any new licenses, and it's easy to imagine how expansion might be slow to occur.

2. The law may create chaos for medical-marijuana patients immediately following a possible March 1, 2018, rollout. The state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates that 587,000 Arizonans are regular marijuana users age 21 or older. If roughly 100 dispensaries are currently serving 100,000 medical-marijuana patients, that's about 1,000 patients per store. If the RTMA passes, about 150 stores statewide will serve up to 4,000 customers each. Ought to be interesting.

1. There was no need to create a new state agency. For proof, look no further than our neighbor to the north: A recreational-marijuana initiative on the ballot in Nevada grants oversight to that state's Department of Taxation. State liquor boards oversee recreational cannabis operations in Oregon and Washington. The Department of Revenue handles oversight in Colorado. But in Arizona, the new law calls for a Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control — not to mention a seven-member Marijuana Commission, of which three members must be marijuana-industry representatives. The latter requirement is nothing new: Arizona has a seven-member liquor board with two seats reserved for business insiders. But the RTMA might suffer at the polls from an image problem among anti-bureaucracy types who might otherwise have voted for the measure.

UPDATE:  Mason Tvert, founder of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation and communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project in Colorado, wrote to us to clarify the following:

"In Colorado, it’s the Dept. of Revenue that oversees the system," Tvert wrote. We'd previously said it was handled by Colorado's liquor department. "This is all about how the states have set up their governments — in Colorado, there was a Liquor Enforcement Division and a Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division within the Dept. of Revenue so the [Amendment 64] initiative called for marijuana to be handled by the Dept. of Revenue, which simply turned the MMED into the MED. Arizona’s existing system involves a Dept. of Liquor Licenses and Control, so creating an agency to oversee marijuana licensing and control is simply a matter of maintaining consistency with how Arizona’s government has operated when it comes to licensing and regulating an intoxicating product for adult use." 

"Also, FWIW, the concern you expressed in #2 was not at all an issue in Colorado. At first, only medical marijuana businesses could open to adults, and there was not a single report of “chaos” or any other problems involving patient access."

New Times points out that while any chaos would likely be short-lived and solved by sheer capitalism, the chances for long lines at the dispensaries are much more likely in Arizona immediately after adult-use legalization than in Colorado, which has hundreds more dispensaries than Arizona will have at first.

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