Future of marijuana in Arizona could depend on voters

Two new marijuana-related bills were introduced at the beginning of the state legislative year. (Photo by Diana Lustig) Two new marijuana-related bills were introduced at the beginning of the state legislative year. (Photo by Diana Lustig)

Democratic legislators introduced two new bills at the start of this legislative session that could legalize marijuana and keep users out of jail, but it may come to lobbying to stimulate a change.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, introduced House Bill 2558, which would tax and regulate marijuana in a similar manner to alcohol, on Feb. 3.

“I’m not at all confident that this (bill) will move on to the Senate,” he said. “We just have to keep working and pushing the issue.”

The bill, which has yet to be assigned to committee, has 13 cosponsors, all of whom are Democrats.

“Many (politicians) were scared to sign on to it because they are afraid of political backlash,” Gallego said.

The other bill, House Bill 2474, was introduced by Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix. It is an amendment to state law ARS 13-3405, which makes any amount of marijuana possession a felony, and reduces those penalties to civil infractions or misdemeanors. HB 2474, which was assigned to the Judiciary Committee on Jan. 30 but has yet to receive a hearing, also has 13 Democrats as sponsors.

“It being an election year, (politicians) mention, ‘I secretly support it, but I can’t go on the record supporting it,’” Cardenas said.

Consequently, a fear of change in the state House could leave the reformation of state marijuana laws in the hands of the people.

But Arizonans have done it before.

Back in 2010, lobby groups obtained more than 250,000 signatures for their petition to put Proposition 203—the law that permits medical patients to buy or grow marijuana—on the ballot. It passed with a 50.1 percent acceptance rate, and Arizona became the 15th state to adopt medical marijuana.

Now, new interest groups, such as Safer Arizona, look to do the same for recreational marijuana. Safer Arizona is a grassroots, volunteer-based initiative aimed toward ending marijuana prohibition in the Valley. Its mission is to collect more than 300,000 signatures from registered voters by the end of June to put the proposition for the full legalization of cannabis on the 2014 ballot. If successful, the decision would be put to the voters again.

A 2013 poll done by the Behavior Research Center showed 56 percent of Arizonans favor legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Helping the progress in the Valley is Mikel Weisser, the legislative liaison for Safer Arizona, who said he’s always in contact with legislators in the House and Senate promoting both bills.

“I’ve been at the state House myself, directly advocating for the bills and lining up people to come and give witness to their representative,” Weisser said.

Social media is a big aid for their cause, because he said it helps keep their followers in contact with the right representative.

“We have reason to think that getting (HB 2474) to committee last week was related to an email and phone campaign we promoted through our Facebook page,” Weisser said.

Under the new amendment, the penalty for people holding less than an ounce of marijuana would be lowered to a civil violation with a fine of no more than $100; between an ounce and two pounds would be lowered to a petty offense with a maximum fine of $1,000; and anything above two pounds would be a class 3 misdemeanor.

The amendment would also reduce the punishment for a juvenile in possession of marijuana to 10 hours of community service with required counseling or rehabilitation.

“We don’t want their lives to be thrown away because they possess marijuana,” Cardenas said.

In a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Arizona was estimated to have spent more than $85 million in 2010 toward enforcing marijuana possession.

Instead of spending money on enforcement, Gallego said the state should tax and regulate the drug.

“We might as well figure out how to take something that a huge portion of the population is using and make it into a legal regulated market,” he said.

His bill, HB 2558, permits anyone over the age of 21 to consume, purchase and transport no more than an ounce of marijuana and grow up to five marijuana plants in private. However, it would still be illegal to smoke in public.

Between 2007 and 2012, the number of marijuana users in the U.S. increased from 14.5 million to 18.9 million, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Furthermore, in a CNN/ORC International poll done in January, more than 55 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be made legal.

“This is a drug, that when used in an adult manner, is no more dangerous than alcohol,” Gallego said. “We’re slowly educating different members (in the House) about it and how legalization and regulation would work.”

If his bill was signed into law, Arizona would follow in the footsteps of western pioneer states such as Washington and Colorado, both of which legalized marijuana in 2012.

Sarah Saucedo, the president of the Students for Sensible Drug Policies at ASU, partnered with Safer Arizona to reach out to the student population and promote the new marijuana laws.

Saucedo said legalization is important for young adults because the criminalization of marijuana could ruin their future.

“It’s really unfortunate that something as small or as trivial as marijuana consumption could possibly ruin a student’s entire career,” Saucedo said.

Reach the reporter at anish1@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @Nishes_Wishes

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly named the Students for Sensible Drug Policies. It has been corrected.

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