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Recreational marijuana supporters claim legalization will benefit education

Teacher Lisa Olson urges voters to support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, saying schools can use the tax revenues. Olson said she is familiar with the drug, using it to deal with issues related to multiple sclerosis. With her is J.P. Holyoak who chairs the initiative campaign. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Teacher Lisa Olson urges voters to support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, saying schools can use the tax revenues. Olson said she is familiar with the drug, using it to deal with issues related to multiple sclerosis. With her is J.P. Holyoak who chairs the initiative campaign. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Supporters of recreational marijuana brought out teachers, parents and school board members on Wednesday to argue that legalizing the drug is good for education.

J.P. Holyoak, chairman of the committee pushing the initiative, said the proposed 15 percent tax on marijuana would raise about $40 million a year, even after paying the costs of setting up a regulatory agency. Half of that is earmarked to pay for full-day kindergarten, a program the state used to fund but cut during the recession, with the other half for general education needs.

Elise Ashe, who identified herself as a parent, said she found after moving to Arizona from Chile that funding for schools is only slightly better here than there.

“I was appalled at the lack of funding that the teachers had,” she said at a press conference outside the state Capitol. “I was appalled at how much money that they had to take out of their own pockets, away from their own families, so that my children and your children could have what they needed in the classrooms to live and grow.”

But the money that would be raised has to be put into perspective.

State funding for K-12 education is $4.7 billion. And when federal and local dollars are added, the amount spent is more than $10 billion.

But teacher Lisa Olson said the alternative is money going to drug dealers.

“Now the cartels haven’t been very generous in sharing their profits with us,” she said. And Olson brushed aside questions of whether voters should also legalize and tax everything from prostitution to heroin if it raises money for schools.

“That’s another conversation down the road, maybe, maybe,” she said.

“But today’s conversation is about legalization of cannabis,” Olson continued. “And that’s something the population is finally prepared to discuss.”

State Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, a member of the Prendergast Elementary School District governing board, said voters will get a chance to decide two critical issues.

“The criminalization and prohibition of marijuana, is this a policy that’s working in Arizona?” he said.

Quezada said his belief is that it is not. He said the initiative gives voters a chance to have some input – however small – into funding of education.

“We have done a horrible job of doing that here in Arizona,” Quezada said. “This is one way we can address that problem here.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, one of the leaders of the opposition to the initiative, chided supporters for using the carrot of improving education as a reason to legalize the drug.

“It’s a very perverse idea to suggest that you want to increase the availability of a substance that objective science now is demonstrating … that adolescents and young adults that are exposed to marijuana are suffering lifelong consequences,” he said. That includes reduction in IQ, the early onset of psychosis and short-term impacts of memory loss and inability to learn.

And Montgomery was not convinced that limiting the sale of marijuana to adults will mean teens won’t get it. He said the experience with alcohol and tobacco, also substances supposedly available only to adults, shows that restriction doesn’t work.

Holyoak, however, said that ignores what’s already happening.

“The fact of the matter is that marijuana is currently available to anybody,” he said.

“It’s being sold at every single high school in Arizona today,” Holyoak said. “The war on drugs has failed.”

The initiative, he said, will take away the marijuana trade from criminals “who have an incentive to sell to those children.”

Montgomery, however, said making marijuana not only legal but more easily available will lead to a teen usage rates comparable to alcohol.

The most recent report from the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission found that 24 percent of more than 48,000 teens questioned said they had used alcohol in the last 30 days. By contrast, the figure for marijuana use was 13 percent.

That same report said three out of every four teens who said they used marijuana had obtained it from friends. And one out of every seven got their drugs from someone who can possess it legally under a 2010 voter-approved medical marijuana law, a category that also can overlap with friends.

That law allows those with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s recommendation to obtain up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from state-regulated dispensaries.

This proposal would follow the lead of places like Colorado and Washington where the drug is legal for any adult. Proponents have crafted a plan they say will regulate it like alcohol, available from about 150 state-regulated stores and taxed.

Backers claim to have about 60,000 signatures of the more than 150,000 they need by next July to put the issue on the 2016 ballot.

The group brought together by pro-marijuana advocates for Wednesday’s press conference may not be a typical cross section of parents, teachers and school board members.

Both Olson and Ashe said they are medical marijuana users. And a show of hands of the others in the group revealed that more than half of them also have state-issued cards allowing them to purchase the drug.

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