Competing Bid To Legalize Marijuana In Arizona Needs Lawmakers' Votes

Published: Thursday, November 14, 2019 - 8:00am
Updated: Thursday, November 14, 2019 - 11:23am
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Paul Atkinson/KJZZ
A cannabis plant.

If the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce gets its way, there will be two proposals to legalize marijuana for recreational use on the ballot in 2020.

But first the organization of pro-marijuana business interests needs to get at least one lawmaker to sponsor its measure, let alone persuade a majority of the Arizona House of Representatives and Senate to approve it.

The chamber hopes to persuade lawmakers, particularly Republicans wary of legalization, that it’s in their best interest to vote for a measure to allow marijuana to be used recreationally.

State law allows marijuana sales only for medicinal use.

“We’ve been doing our homework down at the Legislature, and we have some potential people that’d be willing to sponsor the right legislation,” chamber chairman Mason Cave said.

Besides, the bill drafted by the chamber wouldn’t give lawmakers the final say — the Legislature would vote to refer the measure to the ballot in November 2020.

Legislative referrals bypass the Governor’s Office and head straight to the ballot.

That’s when another legalization effort, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, is expected to be on the ballot. Supporters of that measure — it’s backed by a broad coalition of Arizona’s marijuana community, including many medical marijuana dispensaries — are trying to qualify it for the ballot via the citizen initiative process.

That means gathering over 237,000 signatures by July 2, 2020.

The chamber’s vision for legalization differs from the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, particularly when determining who can obtain a license to sell recreational marijuana. Cave said the chamber’s measure, dubbed the Small Business Liberty Act, would ensure new businesses have access to licenses to sell on the recreational market.

Medical dispensaries would still be allowed to convert to sell recreational marijuana as well, at least for a $100,000 fee. And the referral would also create 125 new licenses — 100 for retail sales and 25 for “craft” marijuana growth, facilities smaller than 10,000 square feet.

It’s those potential new businesses that the chamber will likely rely on for financial support.

“There’s been a lot of support from people outside the state that would like to be in the industry; people that are inside the state that would like to be in the industry,” Cave said. “And so there’s plenty of support right now, and we think our raise is as good as their raise.”

The Smart and Safe Arizona Act creates only 26 new licenses, a restriction based on concerns that Arizona voters don’t want a glut of dispensaries throughout the state.

Rather than allow the Arizona Department of Health Services to administer the new market — DHS already runs the state’s medical-marijuana program — the chamber’s draft bill would have the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control oversee recreational sales.

That would give Republican Gov. Doug Ducey indirect authority over the program.

All members of the Liquor Board are appointed by the governor. Those board members would be responsible for creating rules to govern licensing for retail sales.

The Small Business Liberty Act is also specifically designed to appeal to lawmakers, perhaps even some Republicans whose votes are needed to approve the measure.

It does not set an excise tax for recreational sales, leaving that for lawmakers to sort out in the legislative process. And it doesn’t dictate where revenue from recreational sales will be used, another nod to legislative authority.

Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Smart and Safe Arizona campaign, said that’s not going to sway Republicans ideologically opposed to marijuana.

Other Republicans would still oppose referring legalization to the ballot, she said, because that strategy ensures the law, if approved at the ballot, would be voter-protected.

Such measures are restricted from legislative meddling: Amendments to voter-protected laws must be approved by a three-fourths majority of the Legislature and must further the intent to the underlying law.

“If that was appealing enough, the Legislature would take action and simply legalize it, like Illinois did,” Pearson said. “To expect the Legislature to split the baby and both refer to the public to legalize and voter protect simultaneously is shortsighted.”

Cave said the chamber hopes to piggyback on some legislative success at the Capitol this past session, when lawmakers approved a bill to mandate medical-marijuana testing and favor dispensary licenses awarded to rural Arizona.

Brett Mecum, a lobbyist working with the chamber, would not identify which lawmaker might sponsor the referral but said a Republican from the House of Representatives is considering it.

In the event both measures make the ballot and both are approved, the measure that gets the most "yes" votes supersedes the other.

KJZZ's Ben Giles joined The Show to talk about this proposal.

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