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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.

Come November 2, there could be two more medical marijuana states, as voters in both South Dakota and Arizona go to the polls to vote on medical marijuana initiatives. Last week, we surveyed the state of play in South Dakota. This week, we turn our attention to Arizona.

While Arizona's political class has been caught up in the wild and woolly politics of immigration, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project (AMMPP) at the beginning of this month quietly qualified its initiative for the November ballot after turning in more than 252,000 voter signatures in March.

Under the initiative, known as the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, patients suffering from a specified list of diseases or conditions (cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, Chrohn's disease, Alzheimers, wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe muscle spasms) or "any other conditions or its treatment added by the Department [of Health]" could use marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation. Patients or designated caregivers could possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana.

The initiative envisions a system of state-registered, nonprofit dispensaries that could grow, process, sell, and transport medical marijuana and be remunerated for costs incurred in the process. In most cases, patients or their caregivers would not be allowed to grow their own medicine. Instead, unless they live more than 25 miles from the nearest dispensary, they would have to purchase their medicine at a dispensary. Patients and their caregivers outside that range would be allowed to grow up to 12 plants.

A little more than four months out from Election Day, the Arizona initiative appears to be well positioned for victory. "It's looking good, very good," said AMMPP spokesman Andrew Myers. "Arizona has shown overwhelming support for medical marijuana in the past, and our polling numbers are similar," he said.

"The polling we've seen is very encouraging, and there's been some opposition, but it doesn't seem very organized," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "We're hopeful that Arizona can join the list of states that have effective medical marijuana laws."

Both Meno and Myers cited a February 2009 opinion poll on the topic. That poll showed that 65% of Arizonans supported medical marijuana.

Arizonans have also twice voted to approve medical marijuana, in 1996 and again in 1998. In 1996, the initiative passed, only to be rejected by the state legislature, which placed it on the ballot two years later in order to give voters a chance to rectify their mistake. But the voters again approved medical marijuana, only to find out later that the measure was unworkable because the initiative mandated that physicians prescribe -- not recommend -- medical marijuana. That meant that doctors who wanted their patients to use marijuana would run up against the DEA, which controls doctors' ability to prescribe controlled substances.

In 2002, voters rejected a decriminalization initiative that had, as Myers put it, "a wacky medical component." Under that measure, the state Department of Public Safety would have had to distribute seized marijuana for free to medical marijuana patients.

"This is the first time we've had a complete, workable medical marijuana proposal in the state," said Myers.

What the campaign will look like this fall depends on what the opposition -- if any -- does, said both Meno and Myers. Meno said that MPP has invested more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to qualify the measure for the ballot, and while he declined to comment on MPP's plans in the state for the next few months, he did say that MPP was ready to spend what it takes to get over the top. "We are fully confident that enough will be spent over the next four months to ensure that we are celebrating a victory on November 2," he said.

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