Marijuana Legalization Measure Would Bring $40M to AZ Schools, Backers Declare

Supporters of a plan to legalize marijuana in Arizona gathered at the state Capitol today to symbolically grant the state a check for $40 million — the amount they say schools would reap if voters approve the plan next year.

J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, was joined on the Capitol lawn by two Democratic state representatives and several teachers who support the proposed citizens initiative expected to be on the November 2016 ballot. The presentation included a oversize $40 million check made payable to Arizona.

"We have a choice," Holyoak told reporters at the "Back to School" news conference. "We can either tax and regulate marijuana for the benefit of education and public healthcare, or we can keep it illegal for the benefit of drug cartels."

The campaign said earlier this month that petition-gatherers already had accumulated about 50,000 signatures toward the goal of collecting about 250,000 before the July 2016 deadline, but that the process was still in beginning phases.

The campaign is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization funded partly by billionaire George Soros that also seeks to legalize cannabis for adults in other states. The MPP has seen great success in overturning cannabis prohibition in several states, including Colorado, and was the group responsible for putting the victorious 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act on the ballot.

The medical program now has more than 81,000 registered patients, caregivers, and dispensary agents for whom marijuana possession and use is already legal.

If the MPP's bill passes in Arizona, it would allow Arizonans to grow a few plants for their personal use and would allow a system of regulated retail shops where marijuana and related products would be sold to adults 21 and older.

In Colorado, which began selling to adults in retail stores in January 2014, tax revenue from legal cannabis sales is pouring into state coffers. The latest numbers, released Tuesday, show that revenue has doubled compared to last year at this time, going from $25 million from January to May in 2014 to $44 million for the same period this year.

"Forty million may not seem like a lot of money, but it's going to make a difference." — Elisa Ashe, on potential marijuana tax revenue for schools.

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People who buy marijuana in Colorado spend an average of about $976 per year on the drug, according to an analysis by Holyoak's group.

The MPP plan would assess a 15 percent tax on each ounce of marijuana sold. The revenue would be used to implement a regulatory program, with a large amount left over. Of the amount remaining, 40 percent would fund full-day kindergarten programs while another 40 percent would go to general school construction, maintenance, and operations. The state Department of Health Services would receive the remaining 20 percent.

With an estimated 393,000 marijuana users in Arizona, the state would pull in at least $40 million a year for schools, the group says.

Holyoak says he considers the estimate "very, very conservative."

Lisa Olson, a teacher for the New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe, mother of five, and authorized medical-marijuana user, said she's watched during her 25-year career the "degradation" of Arizona schools because of poor funding.

"We need every dollar we can get for education to keep our class sizes small, to help maintain our buildings, and to make sure children have safe buses to ride," she said. "The cartels haven't been very generous in sharing their profits with us."

Another local teacher, Elise Ashe, described herself as Republican, Christian, and a medical-marijuana patient. Her family used to live in Chile, she said, and didn't find the Arizona school system much better than the South American country's system when she moved here in 2009.

"Forty million may not seem like a lot of money, but it's going to make a difference," she said.

According to a 2014 estimate by the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee, about 543,000 Arizonans use marijuana. The report was prepared following introduction of a legalization bill by Democratic state lawmakers that would have assessed a $50 per ounce tax from cultivators. The bill estimated that the state would collect about $48 million yearly from that plan.

The MPP's 15 percent would mean about $52 in tax collected from an ounce priced at $350. However, city and county taxes also would be assessed, driving the cost for consumers higher and possibly providing an incentive for continued black market sales at cheaper per-ounce rates.

Representative Martin Quezada, a Democrat who represents parts of the Valley's west side and Maryvale, said he supports the MPP's proposal because he's "for better education" and believes it's time to change the state's failed marijuana policies.

"Marijuana is already accessible and available for anyone that wants it," Quezada said. "Why are we criminalizing someone's consumption of marijuana when we know it's safer than alcohol?"

UPDATE: Holyoak contacted us Wednesday evening to let us know that Soros has nothing to do with the MPP, to his knowledge. (We relied on an April 2, 2014, article by the Washington Times' Kelly Riddell for our statement that MPP was partly funded by Soros.) "The MPP doesn't have a single big-time donor anymore," Holyoak says. MPP relies on "support from a much broader and diversified base. The majority of funding is coming from Arizona. The MPP is really a minority donor to our campaign. Naturally, it will all be disclosed in the campaign finance reports."