A self-dealing gambit or an overdue change? Recreational marijuana ballot measure debated
Arizona's ballot measure to legalize adult use of marijuana was alternately described as self-dealing by the marijuana industry and a needed and overdue change to the state's "archaic" drug laws during a debate Wednesday.
Leaders for the campaigns pushing for and against Proposition 207 argued their cases in the debate hosted by The Arizona Republic.
Proposition 207, the "Smart and Safe Arizona Act," would legalize the recreational use and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older in Arizona, and establish a licensing system for retail stores largely through already established medical marijuana dispensaries.
Lisa James, chair of Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, argued against the measure, contending that roads are more dangerous in states with legal marijuana and children there are less fearful of the drug and more likely to use it because of its acceptance by adults.
“Prop. 207 is 17 pages of sweeping changes to Arizona law that will be virtually impossible to change," James said, referring to the high degree of difficulty for making changes in voter-approved measures.
Chad Campbell, the chair of Smart and Safe Arizona campaign, said states that have legalized marijuana have not seen more hazardous roads or increased use by young people, and that the measure is a needed change.
"We will eliminate a dangerously unregulated black market and replace it with a safer, more strictly regulated program that will create thousands of new jobs ... and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for community colleges, public safety, roads and public health programs," he said.
James runs a public relations agency with her husband and has a long history working with Republican political campaigns. She said she was appearing in the debate as a volunteer for the "no" campaign, which is being massively outspent by Proposition 207 supporters.
Campbell is a former state lawmaker who works for a public relations agency that is operating the yes campaign, which is mostly funded by medical marijuana dispensaries.
James spent much of the debate hammering on the length of the proposal, at 17 pages. She said those who wish to decriminalize or legalize marijuana could do so without establishing a for-profit marijuana industry and by going through the Legislature, which would make adjusting the laws easier in the future.
Campbell defended the details in the proposal as necessary to ensure an orderly industry that doesn't make some of the same mistakes that other states with legalized recreational marijuana have made.
"It's long because it's safe," he said of the number of pages for the ballot measure.
He also said that laws approved by voters rightfully are difficult for lawmakers to change.
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He added that some of the details include provisions like requiring health inspectors to make one surprise visit a year to the licensed stores. That is prohibited currently in the state medical-marijuana program.
The Republic's national politics reporter, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, moderated the debate and asked whether the provision in the measure that allows adults to grow six marijuana plants was intentionally written with a low number to protect the business of the dispensaries.
Campbell said proponents wanted to give adults the right to grow their own marijuana, but like other substances, limits are appropriate. He compared it to people who brew their own beer at home, but still face limits set in law regarding how many gallons can be brewed per year before they are considered a microbrewery.
James said the home-growing provision was not only self-serving for the dispensaries, but also dangerous.
"I think everything in these 17 pages is going to benefit the marijuana industry," she said, adding that using marijuana affects the human brain. "We are legalizing something that is going to permanently change our brains and our IQs."
DUI law change debated
Proposition 207 would change the state law that allows for an impaired-driving conviction when drivers simply test positive for tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which can remain in the body weeks after someone uses the drug. The measure states that a simple test for THC would not be sufficient to prove impairment.
"It's taken out because it's not an indicator," Campbell said.
He said law officers could still administer a roadside impairment test and continue to prosecute people who drive while impaired.
He also noted that the proposition explicitly states that lawmakers could pass a law to measure impaired driving based on delta-9 THC in a person's blood when research is conclusive on it and if federal officials recommend such a test.
James said that the current rules for testing drivers for THC are a good deterrent.
"It does stay in your system longer. But it also compiles in there," James said of THC. "For chronic users, just because they don't feel impaired, doesn't mean they are not impaired."
She said police officers have good reasons to cite drivers and test them for THC.
"People aren't pulled over because you look at someone and you think there is THC," she said. "They've done something. They're crossing over the middle line. They're speeding. They are doing something that is causing that."
Opponents ask questions
In a twist, Wingett Sanchez gave both Campbell and James the opportunity to ask each other a question.
Campbell asked James if she thought there was a real way to stop marijuana use.
"I sincerely believe having a DUI bright-line deterrent makes a difference," she said. "I believe that not telling our kids that it's OK by legalizing will keep them from using it. It may not keep all of them from using it but it will keep more of them from using it."
James asked if Campbell would still be debating the issue if he weren't paid to do so.
"Yes, I have been for years," he said. "I think this is one of the most pressing issues in Arizona simply because our laws are so draconian ... . There is no argument to be made that people of color aren't more targeted for arrest and conviction of these crimes than white people ... . It's time to end that."
Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at email@example.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.