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.

"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."

Is there anyone in Arizona who wants to argue that it's better to hurt patients than to hurt the cartels? If so, the campaign is chomping at the bit to get into that argument. Come November 2, Arizona looks very likely indeed to join the ranks of the medical marijuana states.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle.
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