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Prospects for Arizona's Medical Marijuana Initiative Looking Good for November

Arizona activists have qualified an initiative for the ballot and look to be sitting pretty -- at least for now.

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"What our campaign is going to look like will be dictated by what our opposition is," said Myers, a Phoenix-based political consultant. "We're not going to spend millions of dollars on a campaign where there isn't any organized opposition, and we haven't seen anyone willing to spend money on the other side. As it stands right now, there is a good chance this won't be an expensive campaign. We're leading by 30 points with no opposition."

The only opposition that has so far emerged is Stop the Pot, a web site put up by Max Fose, a former Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) political operative, now a political consultant looking for opportunities to cash in on anti-marijuana sentiment -- if it emerges. That web site has been largely inactive since it first went up a few weeks ago. Fose did not respond to Chronicle requests for an interview.

"I know Max personally," said Myers. "He's a political consultant here and he's trying to drum up some business. He's hoping that if some outside group comes in, he'll be in a position to form a committee to get some of those dollars."

One of the unique -- and controversial -- properties of the Arizona initiative is that does not allow patients or their caregivers to grow their own pot. The only exception is if patients are more than 25 miles away from a dispensary. "We wanted to design a system that served the needs of typical patients," explained Myers. "We started from the assumption that about 95% of patients who will be receiving recommendations are going to want to use dispensaries. Growing your own product or finding a competent caregiver can be very difficult."

But there was another reason for limiting patient grows, said Myers. "Arizona is a state with a very dense population -- most of the state's population is in Phoenix and Tucson -- and there was concern about large numbers of people doing urban cultivation. That was a major law enforcement concern, but this halo around dispensaries restricts urban growing, and it has the added benefit of providing a market for the dispensaries. In essence, the more patients a nonprofit dispensary has, the lower the price. We wanted to have a situation where dispensaries are available, like California, but where patients don't have to pay black market prices."

That reasoning wasn't real popular with some local activists. "We're not 100% happy with the language, but we helped get signatures and we will support it," said Mary Mackenzie, founder of the Tucson-based AZ4NORML, a local NORML affiliate. "We want it legal here for somebody," she exclaimed.

"We don't like that 25-mile perimeter thing, but we're hoping that at least here in Tucson, if police catch a patient growing, they will leave him alone," said Mackenzie. "And there aren't enough eligible conditions. Once we win, we are going to have to go back and start adding conditions. We'll be working with the legislature, the Department of Health, and law enforcement down the road to make changes to make this a better law," she said.

Myers admitted that the no-grow provision was not liked by some elements of the marijuana community, but said it was aimed at protecting likely patients. "We've caught a lot of flak from activists, but most patients don't go to NORML meetings," he said. "We're thinking about a middle-aged woman diagnosed with breast cancer whose oncologist suggests medical marijuana. We wanted a program that would be accessible for people like that."

All of the hysteria about Mexican drug cartels on the border may end up playing into the initiative's hands, said Myers. "We have a really good argument to make that medical patients in Arizona are forced into a really terrible choice: Either continuing to suffer without their medicine, or go the black market. Since most of the marijuana in Arizona comes from Mexico, buying black market marijuana means you are financing violent criminals. Legitimate medical marijuana patients should not have to feel they are inadvertently providing funding to violent criminals as they seek relief. Passing this initiative takes the money out of the hands of criminals and puts it in the hands of nonprofit dispensaries that will serve the community."

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