Arizonans will get the chance to legalize the use of medical marijuana yet again this November – the fourth such opportunity in the past 15 years.
The Medical Marijuana initiative became the first to qualify for the 2010 general election ballot after the Secretary of State’s Office verified on June 1 that supporters had turned in the required number of signatures from registered voters.
The Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project collected 252,000 signatures on petitions that were submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office in March, even though the group needed only 153,365 signatures to qualify the measure.
Supporters of the initiative said some Arizonans are suffering from medical conditions that are most effectively treated with marijuana, voters have shown they support medical marijuana, and the initiative heading to the ballot avoids mistakes made by some states with similar laws.
“This would provide relief for Arizona’s most vulnerable and ill residents,” said Andrew Myers, a spokesman for the medical marijuana campaign.
The initiative’s opponents, however, said legalizing medical marijuana would increase the use of illegal drugs and that smoking marijuana is no substitute for medicine.
Doug Hebert, a former DEA agent and spokesman for The Partnership for a Drug-Free America Arizona Affiliate, said a host of problems will arise if voters approve the initiative.
Because The Partnership for a Drug-Free America is a non-profit group, it cannot support or oppose the initiative. Yet Hebert said the motives of those supporting the initiative appear to be other than altruistic.
“They’re preying on voter sympathy for very ill people, because they want to smoke marijuana,” Hebert said.
Hebert said there are several reasons the initiative would likely lead to increased criminality and drug use, as well as complicate law enforcement’s efforts.
“If they wanted to keep this above ground, you’d think they’d want law enforcement to have a role,” Hebert said. “But they specifically wrote into the initiative that the only agency that can monitor the dispensaries is the (Department of Health Services), and they can’t make an inspection without giving notice first.”
Hebert pointed out that the proposed law also prevents any doctor from being subject to scrutiny for the way they would prescribe marijuana and that the determination of eligibility for medical marijuana would not have to happen in-person, which could lead to diagnoses being dispensed over the internet.
Hebert said the initiative also infringes on the long-established right of employers to keep a drug-free workplace, and causes permissive attitudes toward drug use, particularly among kids.
Arizona voters, though, have approved similar measures in the past. Polling conducted by The Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project shows 65 percent of Arizonans support the legalization of marijuana for medical use.
In 1996 voters approved a medical marijuana initiative, which was later overturned by the Legislature. Voters then approved a similar initiative in 1998, but it was invalidated because of a drafting error.
Myers said the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project drafted the law to avoid previous mistakes and to account for the lessons learned by the 14 other states that have medical marijuana laws.
“We could look at what works, and what doesn’t,” Myers said. “We wrote it to be as transparent as possible, and to have no negative impact.”
The Arizona initiative caps the number of dispensaries at 120 to avoid the problems California ran into by allowing an indefinite number of places to obtain medical marijuana. It also contains specific zoning provisions, which Myers said will keep marijuana dispensaries in commercial or industrial areas – and away from schools.
Myers said the initiative also specifies that people cannot smoke marijuana at the dispensaries, which has created hangouts for pot smokers in some states that permit medical marijuana.
Finally, the initiative outlines a specific set of medical conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana. California’s medical marijuana law, meanwhile, allows doctors to prescribe pot for any reason.
“Marijuana is extremely effective for treating three main symptoms: nausea, pain from nerve damage and tremors,” Myers said.
The main beneficiaries of the proposed law would be HIV/AIDS patients and those with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma. Myers said that in cases of severe nerve damage-related pain, using marijuana can allow doctors to reduce the use of powerful narcotic painkillers by two-thirds or more, which can increase life expectancy in those patients who would otherwise put themselves at risk of liver and organ damage.
Myers said the other benefit of the proposed law is that it would simplify law enforcement, by drawing a clear line between those who can legally use marijuana and those who cannot, whereas those who would be candidates for medical marijuana might seek it illegally.