Bid to Legalize Marijuana in Arizona Has Some Advocates Seeing Red

Family propelled JP Holyoak into the weed business: his daughter, Reese, has a rare illness, and Holyoak believes in the power of medical marijuana.

He believes in it so much that his company, Arizona Natural Selections, operates two medical marijuana dispensaries that have served about 9,000 patients since opening last year. Holyoak, a financial adviser, has a big cannabis nursery in a warehouse on an industrial estate near Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. And he believes that recreational marijuana should be legalised – not through any enthusiasm for stoner culture, but because it is sound conservative policy.

Holyoak, a Republican, said he has “learned about the total futility of the war on drugs” and is convinced that the only two choices are “tax and regulate, or enrich criminals”. Because of this, he is backing a new ballot initiative asking Arizona voters to legalise recreational pot. He sees it as a wholly separate issue from medical marijuana, which was narrowly approved in the state in 2010 when “yes” won 50.13% of the vote.

The current campaign needs to secure about 150,000 valid signatures by June next year to get the proposal on the ballot in November 2016. “I’m comfortable and confident that we’ll gather the signatures,” said Holyoak, a serious man who weighs his words as carefully as if he were selling them by the gram.

If it passes the ballot, Arizona will become the fifth state to pass such legislation, after Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska. But even if it does, the road to total legalisation in the US remains a long and bumpy one.

Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and the Drug Enforcement Administration still lists it as a schedule 1 narcotic, or “the most dangerous drugs” with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”, according to the DEA.

This is partly because of American treaty obligations; a scheduled 2016 UN special session will consider changing the stance of cannabis, but federal change is unlikely while the current treaties remain.

At a coffee shop in downtown Scottsdale, Carlos Alfaro said he is steeling himself for a long and bitter fight, convinced that Arizona can be a key domino to fall on the path to nationwide legalisation. “It [wouldn’t be] the first Republican state – Alaska legalised it before Arizona. However, I do think it’s the first big Republican state, the hardest battle that we’re fighting on the national front,” said Alfaro, the state’s political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

For Dan Riffle, the federal policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the biggest roadblock is “the mindset of career politicians who have been in Congress since the 70s and 80s, and came of age in a time when we were waging a war on drugs,” he said, adding that one such legislator – Iowa senator Chuck Grassley – is chair of the Senate judiciary committee, exactly where change would have to take place.

But there are reasons for hope. DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is retiring this year. The DEA has oversight of the scientific process, determining which researchers get licensed and which studies approved – and it is the DEA, ultimately, which sets what schedule of drug marijuana is. If the next head of the agency comes from a scientific or health background rather than law enforcement, Riffle said, “then I think there is a window for reform”.

In Arizona, even with the petition drive just getting started, the battle for hearts and minds has begun. Near Phoenix airport is a huge billboard with a cute picture of a baby eating a cookie. “Would your child know if this cookie had pot in it?” asks the ad.

For Alfaro, who has worked at the DC-based libertarian thinktank the Cato Institute, individual freedom is the core of the issue. It’s an argument he hopes will persuade voters who last year elected the staunchly pro-gun, anti-abortion, Sarah Palin-backed Doug Ducey as governor.

“Even though Arizona’s really red in terms of Republican conservative culture, we’re seeing a very strong libertarian streak with the elected officials that we get, some of the laws that we pass. We have a long way to go on things like immigration but when it comes to issues of personal choice I think a strong majority of Arizonans believe that the government shouldn’t be making that choice for us and we should value more personal liberty,” Alfaro said.

He is not alone. Several candidates in the 2016 field, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, have said that they believe cannabis is a states’ rights issue, rather than a federal one.

Like Holyoak, Alfaro is framing the proposal in a way designed to be palatable even to the likes of the retirees who live in places like the Sun City retirement community, north of Phoenix, where a medical marijuana dispensary opened last December.

Adults aged 21 and up would be able to buy a maximum of 1oz from a state-licensed retailer, with home-growing restricted to six plants per person and 12 per household. Revenue from a special 15% tax would go towards regulation and public health education. Cities and towns will have the chance to ban sales, private property owners could prohibit it on their premises, and employers would be able to enforce drug-free workplaces.

Activists hope that by stressing tight control and limited access, regulating weed in a similar way to alcohol, they will convince the sceptics that Arizona won’t turn into Amsterdam.

“The substance is not off the streets. It’s very accessible and it does fund an underground market. I think people see that,” Alfaro said as he sat in the coffee house’s outdoor deck on a mellow sunny afternoon. “They’ve experienced the failure of marijuana prohibition and want to go a different direction.”

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