In Arizona, The Money Behind Marijuana's Opposition Is Dwindling

By Ben Giles
Published: Thursday, October 1, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, March 16, 2021 - 1:28pm

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Medical marijuana cannabis plant leaf
Tim Agne/KJZZ
A medical cannabis plant at Copperstate Farms in Snowflake, Arizona.

For the past few years at Arizona’s Capitol, there’s been a small group of lawmakers sounding the alarm.

The state’s voters have already approved marijuana for medicinal use. Despite a setback in 2016, when voters rejected a ballot initiative to legalize recreational cannabis, those lawmakers say legalization is inevitable. They’ve tried, but failed, to offer a legislative alternative — better legalize cannabis by bill than at the ballot.

Now comes another effort to legalize recreational marijuana at the ballot. Proposition 207 will be decided by voters come Nov. 3.

Sheila Polk
Office of Sheila Polk
Sheila Polk.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is an outspoken opponent of legalized marijuana and served as one of the main voices against the 2016 initiative. Those who assume marijuana will be legalized are wrong, she says.

“I think there's a nice, a very strong network of advocates across the state who are helping open voters' eyes as to what is in Prop. 207,” Polk said.

Demitri Downing, the head of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association of Arizona, said he’s not worried about opposition from Polk, who he described as a strict prohibitionist when it comes to cannabis.

The strongest opposition the initiative faced four years ago is gone, he said.

“The real reason it lost in 2016 was because the opposition spent millions and millions of dollars on advertising,” Downing said. “That money doesn't exist this time around.

Demitri Downing
Marijuana Industry Trade Association of Arizona
Demitri Downing

More than $6 million was spent against the 2016 marijuana ballot initiative. Of that, about half came from three key sources, none of which are available this time around.

Roughly $1 million was offered from the owner of Discount Tires, who has since passed away.

Another $500,000 came from Insys Therapeutics, the controversial producer of a synthetic opioid. The company’s founder is now behind bars for a scheme that bribed physicians to prescribe the painkiller to patients who didn’t need it. Another $1.5 million was raised by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

They’re still opposed to legalized, recreational cannabis. But financially, they’ll be on the sidelines.

“The Chamber of Commerce or any organization does not have a pile of cash just sitting around,” said Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the chamber.

Given the finite resources and a crowded ballot, Taylor says the business community is focused on another initiative, Proposition 208: A tax hike on the wealthy to raise money for education.

“We've made the decision that passage of a Proposition 208 would undermine our competitive standing so dramatically, that we have been forced to engage heavily into that,” Taylor said.

That provides a clearer path to victory for an initiative that would legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana by anyone at least 21 years old. A 16% tax on cannabis sales would be earmarked in part for public safety and community health programs.

As an attorney who specializes in marijuana law, Ryan Hurley helped write the 2016 initiative. To help shore up support for this year’s initiative, Hurley said the drafters sought to ease concerns that were raised about the previous measure.

“The initiative really went out of its way to learn the lessons from 2016. And to take feedback from all sorts of different stakeholders. You know, people supportive of cannabis legalization, people in opposition to it,” he said.

Garrick Taylor
Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Garrick Taylor

That includes adding language to expunge older marijuana offenses from criminal records if cannabis is legalized, a change Hurley said has helped shore up support in the marijuana community.

Feedback also included insight from the Chamber, which told the legalization campaign that businesses wanted clarity about the rules for marijuana and the workplace. Stacy Pearson, spokeswoman for the Prop. 207 campaign, said that message was received.

“If a workplace has a policy that prohibits use of cannabis marijuana, marijuana products, they can continue with that policy, hard stop. Just like there are policies that prohibit people from using alcohol in the middle of the afternoon or using prescription drugs,” Pearson said.

Taylor acknowledged the outreach. But it wasn’t enough to win the chamber’s outright support.

“The drafters of the pot legalization measure, in 2020, have attempted to ameliorate some of the concerns that came up four years ago, specifically from the perspective of employers. That hasn't changed our position,” he said.

What has changed is the allocation of resources. Taylor said the chamber might contribute to  marijuana opposition efforts, but reiterated their focus is on the education initiative.

The lack of a well-financed opposition helps explain why, at least to date, the campaigns for and against marijuana legalization have been relatively quiet.

“If you don't have the marketing and the advertising, if you don't have the pulpit, then you're not going to have the information that you want out there,” Downing said.

That pulpit could have been crucial to the outcome in November. A recent Monmouth University poll found that 51% of registered voters in Arizona approve recreational marijuana, while 41% are opposed. That’s a slim margin for error, and with the right push, the race could swing in either sides’ favor between now and Nov. 3.

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Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk in 2018.
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