Arizona's Marijuana Activists Are United. Will That Be Enough for Legalization This Year?

Daren Thomas Magee | @realfunwow

Arizona politicians and activists have spent the last year espousing grand plans to legalize adult-use marijuana in 2020, introducing various bills and initiatives to achieve the same basic result in different ways.

A single ballot initiative has outlasted the rest. In the absence of any legislative action or competing ballot measures, the dispensary-led Smart and Safe Arizona Act is the industry’s sole beacon of hope for legalization this year.

The campaign seems poised for success. It was designed by powerhouse PR firm Strategies 360, which ran Paul Penzone’s 2016 Maricopa County sheriff’s race, as well as the only other successful pot legalization campaign in a red state, in Alaska in 2014. The initiative is also backed by the best-funded PAC in the state, which had raised some $2.7 million by the end of the first quarter of 2020 thanks to donations from large-scale dispensary companies like Harvest and CuraLeaf. And by mid-March, when its biggest rival group folded and endorsed Smart and Safe, the campaign already had amassed more than 300,000 signatures — seemingly well over the necessary threshold to get approved for the ballot in July.

Ask anyone in the state’s marijuana industry and they will tell you the same thing: Legalization this year is all but certain. Polls show two-thirds of Americans support recreational marijuana, and 11 states already have legalized it. Arizona has plenty of its own in-state support for pot as well, with more than 225,000 medical marijuana patients. Early polling for the initiative also looks promising. More than half of Arizonans said they’d support legalization in a survey by OH Predictive Insights last December.

There are reasons, though, for less than total confidence in the initiative’s success. Signature gathering and in-person outreach aren’t happening for the foreseeable future as campaigns comply with a statewide stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus. Nobody really knows how the pandemic’s spread could influence the rest of the campaign.

Some in the industry warn that the opposition hasn’t yet mobilized — and in a state known for its anti-marijuana fervor and tough-on-drugs leadership, that contingent’s next moves could make a big difference.

“The messaging hasn’t begun,” said Demitri Downing, president of Arizona’s Marijuana Industry Trade Association. “The advertising hasn’t begun. The real battle hasn’t begun.”

And the ghost of 2016 — when a similar effort to legalize pot in Arizona failed at the ballot, falling victim to infighting between cannabis groups and fierce, well-funded opposition from anti-pot prohibitionists — still lingers.
Mikel Weisser, the rural field director for the campaign, who currently is working from his poster-covered basement in So-Hi, Arizona, instead of traveling the state in his Chevy Sonic as planned, said he still has high hopes.

“Of all the things that have gone wrong this year, this campaign is one bright spot for me,” he said.
“We have been in far more precarious positions, personally, professionally, than to legalize marijuana,” said Strategies 360 Senior Vice President Stacy Pearson, the spokeswoman for the legalization campaign. “The industry has been extraordinarily supportive and will spend what it takes to win.”

Below, read Phoenix New Times’ guide to the initiative, which should answer all your questions about what’s different this time compared to 2016, what legal weed would look like in Arizona, and what could happen in the next few months as the campaign heats up.

What Went Wrong in 2016?

The first serious attempts to legalize adult-use marijuana in Arizona emerged in 2014, four years after the state’s voters passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the national group responsible for the drafting of AMMA, already was crafting an adult-use campaign for Arizona when those involved in the state’s medical marijuana industry decided they wanted a say in the process.

By January 2015, MPP had “introduced an initiative that was similar to what happened in Washington and Colorado, which created unnecessary business situations,” Downing said. Those “business situations” — namely, offering retail licenses to a large or unlimited number of applicants — would deny medical marijuana dispensary license holders early access to the adult-use market, which they badly wanted.

So, the dispensaries coalesced around an alternative competing measure, Downing said — one that would protect the limited license structure that gave their businesses value.

Weisser was part of the effort then, too, trying to represent marijuana consumer interests in often-contentious negotiations with MPP. Eventually, by April 2015, most of the industry had agreed to back a modified version of MPP’s proposal — but by then, according to Weisser, the damage was done.

“It was chaos,” Weisser said. “Whether or not we got the provisions that we wanted — and by and large we didn’t — what came out of those negotiations was a hostility against the campaign, against the industry, against MPP. They had treated the community badly.”

To make matters worse, the resulting ballot initiative, known as Proposition 205, also faced an aggressive, $6.3-million opposition campaign from prohibitionist politicians and business owners who feared it would lead to Reefer Madness-style stoner anarchy among their employees.

The attacks came from all sides — from politicians like then-Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Governor Doug Ducey, high-profile donors like billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and big business interests who donated high-dollar amounts to the main opposition group, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. That “no” campaign earned $500,000 from Chandler pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics and about $1 million each from Scottsdale-based Discount Tire and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce — funding that helped it run expensive, fearmongering campaign ads.

Even still, Prop. 205 lost the 2016 election by fewer than 3 percentage points, earning over 48 percent of the vote and setting the stage for what activists expect will be a winning campaign four years later.

“Everybody knew that 2020 was going to be the year to put something back on the ballot,” Downing said. “This time, it’s going to be a lot different.”

On March 20, 2019, at the FOUND:RE Hotel in downtown Phoenix, Harvest Health & Recreation CEO Steve White revealed the industry’s plans to launch its 2020 legalization campaign.

“We have learned a lot of lessons from losing the last time around,” White told the packed crowd. “We tried to solve the world’s problems in one initiative, and we lost votes as a result. This time around, we will let the campaign people do campaign things, step aside, fund the initiative, and let it win.”

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Mikel Weisser

Here's What the Act Would Do

The nuts and bolts of the new initiative mirror Prop. 205. It would allow Arizona residents 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, including up to five grams in the form of marijuana concentrate.
It would also permit each adult to grow up to six marijuana plants at home, with no more than 12 plants total in a household.

Like Prop. 205 did, it would place an additional tax on marijuana purchases — a 16 percent excise tax, compared to Prop. 205’s 15 percent tax. But unlike the 2016 effort, which allocated most tax revenues to education, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act would distribute the earnings more widely, to state agencies, community colleges, police departments, and a special “Justice Reinvestment Fund” to prevent substance abuse and help those disproportionately harmed by Arizona’s long history of anti-pot legislation.

Similar to Prop. 205, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act would cap the number of retail stores carrying marijuana at about 150 statewide — at least initially. Medical marijuana dispensary owners looking to expand into the retail market would get first dibs. But the 2020 initiative’s list also includes a handful of licenses for rural communities lacking marijuana access, and 26 “social equity” licenses reserved for communities harmed by marijuana prohibition.

While the 2016 measure would have assigned the regulation of marijuana retail stores to a new agency directed by the governor, the 2020 initiative gives Arizona’s health department jurisdiction over the adult-use industry. The department would determine things like marijuana potency (which would be limited to no more than 10 milligrams of THC per serving in edibles).

It’s not yet clear when retail stores would open their doors if the initiative passes — that depends on how long it takes for DHS to write the rules, according to Sam Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association. It could be as soon as January 1, 2021, or as late as March. “Definitely by 4/20 of 2021, the adult-use market will be up and running,” Richard said.

The new initiative would also set policies in motion for retroactive marijuana decriminalization. By July 2021, anyone previously convicted of possessing up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana would have their records expunged.
Under Smart and Safe, the state’s existing medical marijuana industry — which DHS has regulated for a decade — would continue as normal. Medical marijuana dispensary owners who opted to expand into the adult-use market largely would do so in their existing physical locations, adding new staff and providing separate sales counters for medical and retail customers. Though consumer products would be subject to certain regulations, medical patients would still be able to get the highly potent, specialized products they rely on.

The writers of the Smart and Safe Arizona Act also made sure to include olive branches for some of the biggest critics of the 2016 legalization effort. To dissuade kids and teens from marijuana products, the initiative would ban all edibles designed to look like fruit, animals, insects, cartoons or gummy bears. The measure also notes explicitly that legalization wouldn’t strip employers’ rights to maintain drug-free workplace policies — a problem that became a major sticking point in the 2016 race.

According to Pearson, the campaign consulted “hundreds” of stakeholders to write the initiative, starting with the biggest critics of the 2016 initiative. It also published two early drafts of the initiative last fall, opening the text to public comment in an attempt at inclusivity.

“In 2016, we were a fractured industry,” Richard said. This year, “we’re all passing the peace pipe around the campfire.”

Many medical marijuana patients, some of whom were skeptical of Prop. 205 in 2016, have also come out in support of Smart and Safe.

“At first I was on the fence about legalization,” said Cyndi Mathers, a patient in Apache Junction. “I wanted to hear different stories.”

But Mathers said she made up her mind in support when she started talking to other consumers at dispensaries whose lives have been improved by cannabis.

Amanda Gardner, a 23-year-old patient in Phoenix who was arrested for marijuana possession at 18 and cleared, said she thinks adult-use legalization is an important criminal justice reform.

“A lot of people get locked up for petty marijuana crimes,” she said. “I’m worried about people who can’t afford a card.”

Smart and Safe hasn’t escaped all criticism. Starting last September, a rival group called the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce slammed the initiative, arguing it gave too much power to dispensary owners who already stand to make millions from their control of the medical industry.

That group and multiple pro-cannabis Democratic lawmakers tried to get alternatives on the ballot through a legislative referendum that would open cannabis business opportunities to more Arizonans. But the Republican-led state government hasn’t advanced any of those plans.

In mid-March, Mason Cave, a board member of the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, admitted defeat, announcing the group would endorse the Smart and Safe Arizona Act after all.

“The initiative definitely isn’t ideal, and some of those issues that we pointed out are still issues,” Cave told New Times. “But you know what? The state of Arizona is still going to get adult-use legalization at the end of the day. And that’s the most important thing.”

What Obstacles Still Lie Ahead?

Even though the Smart and Safe Arizona Act seems to have broad support across Arizona’s marijuana industry, it’s still going on the ballot in a state with some of the harshest anti-marijuana laws in the country.

Possession of even a trace amount of weed in Arizona without a medical card is still considered a felony. Anti-marijuana politicians like Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk continue to rail against the substance whenever they get a chance.

The Smart and Safe Arizona Act is fortunate that some of the biggest funders of the opposition campaign in 2016 aren’t in a position to fight for the cause this time around. Insys Therapeutics CEO John Kapoor, the billionaire who donated $500,000 to the opposition in 2016, has since been convicted in a federal racketeering case amid the opioid crisis.

Bruce Halle, the former CEO of Discount Tire and once the richest man in Arizona, donated $1 million to the opposition campaign in 2016. But he died in January 2018.

Bill Montgomery, the former Maricopa County attorney and a crusader against weed who has argued “potheads” are a “drag on this country,” is also unable to sway voters in his new role on the bench of the Arizona Supreme Court.

And Robert Leger, the spokesperson for Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, which spearheaded the opposition campaign in 2016, said he still opposes legalization and will be involved in some “grassroots efforts” but won’t be in charge of the “no” campaign this year.

The only group that appears to have stepped forward to lead an opposition campaign, Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, bungled its launch last month, failing to secure the rights to its URLs. The Smart and Safe campaign quickly snagged them and redirected them to federal websites on the coronavirus, Pearson confirmed.

“The campaign owns them now, and they all redirect to the Centers for Disease Control and a public health crisis that actually matters,” Richard said.

Lisa James, spokesperson for Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, declined a request for comment.
There still is time for a proper opposition campaign to emerge. Polk and Ducey did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but they’re both traditionally against adult-use legalization and have the political clout to secure funding from donors.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which gave nearly $1 million to the opposition campaign in 2016, also hasn’t taken a public stance on the initiative yet, though its reputation suggests it will join the “no” side.

“In light of our fierce opposition to the legalization question that appeared in 2016, the proponents of the 2020 measure have a pretty high bar to clear if they are going to convince us to change our position,” Chamber of Commerce spokesman Garrick Taylor said.

Changing perceptions of marijuana among voters nationwide over the last four years could help Smart and Safe’s cause, Weisser argued.

“People understand better,” Weisser said. “Millions of people in America live in a legal environment, and the sky is not falling.”

Pearson declined to share the campaign’s internal polling, but said she’s confident the campaign has the votes it needs.

“We’re starting with a lead that I don’t think any other campaign in the nation looking to legalize has started with,” she said.

But with public polls showing just over 50 percent of voters supporting the initiative statewide, longtime Arizona pollster Mike Noble said he thinks “much will hinge on” whether or not a “no” campaign opens its coffers in opposition.

Where Does the Campaign Stand Now?

Like most political campaigns across the country right now, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act is complying with stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines to combat the coronavirus.

That means signature-gatherers can’t collect names to qualify for the ballot unless the state grants them permission to do it digitally, and outreach staff like Weisser can’t crisscross the state spreading the word.

Funding sources on both sides of the race could also dry up as the pandemic causes global economic strain.
Luckily for the initiative, the campaign team prepared well in advance. Though nearly all of Arizona’s proposed ballot initiatives for 2020 are struggling to get enough signatures to qualify for the election, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act eclipsed that goal by early 2020, Pearson said. As long as there isn’t a credible challenge to those signatures, the initiative should have no problem appearing on the ballot this November — and it could be the only initiative that does.

And even though some campaign activities are in a lull right now, others are moving ahead as planned.
“Our offices are working from home, but in large part, things are business as usual,” Pearson said.

Pearson said the campaign already has been touting its own projections that legal marijuana will bring about $300 million in tax revenues into the state annually. She said that message will be even more important in light of the recession caused by the coronavirus.

With seven months left in the campaign, dispensary owners and industry leaders already are preparing for what they view as inevitable.

Lilach Power, owner of The Giving Tree dispensary in north Phoenix, said she’s planning to relocate to a larger facility closer to other retail stores to prepare for a higher volume of customers once adult-use pot is legal.
“We see about 1,200 patients a week,” she said. “I’m expecting to double.”

Dispensary owners are also coordinating with the health department to ensure the state is prepared to implement adult-use legalization — and can do so without the long lines and product shortages that have occurred in some other states that have legalized.

“If you’re only planning for the increase in footprint the day after the election, you’re six months too late,” Richard said.