Big obstacles face Democrat’s effort to legalize marijuana

Big obstacles face Democrat’s effort to legalize marijuana


He admits the plan is a political longshot.

But Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, hopes to convince colleagues to approve legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults, if for no other reason than the alternative is having voters adopt their own plan. And if that happens, that locks lawmakers out of the process entirely.

His legislation, HB 2007, would make it legal for those 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of the drug.

Those who want to partake would be able to purchase it from state-regulated retail outlets. That would require paying whatever is the going rate — plus a $50-an-ounce tax. Legislative budget analysts, looking at a similar plan last session, estimated the levy could generate more than $48 million a year based on anticipated recreational sales through these shops of 950,000 ounces a year.

But users also would be able to grow up to five plants on their own at any one time and avoid the tax entirely.

Cardenas’ first hurdle is convincing Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, to give his legislation a hearing.

Farnsworth chairs the House Judiciary Committee where the measure is likely to be assigned.

But Farnsworth told Capitol Media Services he remains opposed to legalization. And he said the fact that the issue could wind up on the 2016 ballot — and beyond the reach of lawmakers — is no reason for the Legislature to expedite it.

What might fare better is Cardenas’ backup plan: HB 2006 would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, imposing a civil penalty of no more than $100.

Now, possession of any amount is a felony, meaning more than a year in state prison.

But these are usually handled as misdemeanors. And a 1996 voter-approved law generally precludes incarceration for first and second offenses.

“I’m willing to look at that,” Farnsworth said. But he said any decision whether to even grant that a hearing depends on whether police and prosecutors believe such a change will impair their anti-drug efforts.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, a long-time foe of both medical marijuana and recreational use, said he sees no particular benefit in enacting HB 2006 as an alternative. And the keys, he said, are existing sentencing laws and policies.

“Given that no one faces a felony sanction unless or until their criminal history calls for it, this is another solution looking for a problem,” Montgomery said.

Cardenas, 28, who admitted trying marijuana “once, a long time ago,” said he used to be opposed to any legalizing of marijuana. In fact, he said he voted against the 2010 law approved by voters that allows those with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s recommendation to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

“Then I took a class at ASU called Drugs and Justice, he said, which convinced him that the efforts to halt marijuana use through laws have done no good.

“Everyone has a friend who knows how to get marijuana,” Cardenas said, himself included. “The money we’ve spent on the war on drugs has kind of gone into a black hole.”

Farnsworth’s opposition is not an insurmountable obstacle. Even if Cardenas cannot get a hearing, there are other options to get the issue to the full House, including tacking it on to other legislation.

Cardenas said a big selling point on having a plan adopted by the Legislature is that question of control.

The Arizona Constitution says lawmakers cannot repeal or make major alterations on anything approved by voters. They can make more minor changes — but only if the amendments “further the purpose” of the original voter-approved law and only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and the Senate.

He acknowledged even his own nine page measure still needs some work.

For example, Cardenas proposes that recreational marijuana could be sold not only by existing medical marijuana dispensaries but also anyone else who can get permission to operate from the state Department of Health Services.

But the measure is silent on the question of whether special zoning is required for marijuana shops and whether communities could effectively keep out such stores by refusing to give owners the proper zoning or permits. Cardenas said it’s not his intent to give cities veto power.

While Cardenas said his legislation is designed solely to open the door for adults to get the drug, it actually would ease the penalty for those younger.

For those caught with an ounce or less, it would replace the current felony with a requirement to complete a drug awareness program. And if they fail to do that within a year, they are subject to a fine up to $300.

Half of the $50-an-ounce tax would go to the state general fund, with another 30 percent earmarked for state aid to education. The balance would go to the Department of Health Services, half going for voluntary programs for treatment of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use and half for “scientifically and medically accurate” public education campaigns about the health and safety risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.