A new cannabis group that formed to oppose a 2020 marijuana ballot initiative to legalize recreational use launched its own competing effort November 13 with plans to have legislators send it to the voters in lieu of collecting signatures.
The Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce played up differences between its ambitions and the Smart and Safe Arizona Act
The Cannabis Chamber wants to give more licenses to those that don’t already own medical dispensaries – 125 compared to the initiative’s 26. Under the Cannabis Chamber’s plan, dubbed the Small Business Liberty Act, the Legislature would dictate a proposed excise tax, but the intent is to keep it under 16%, which is where the initiative set its excise tax. But there is no indication yet whether legislators would keep that tax under 16%, since they are essentially being given complete control to set the tax.
The referendum would also change who gets to test marijuana in the state under SB1494, a bill from Sen David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, that was signed into law. The comparison says the Smart and Safe initiative does not eliminate the opportunity for dispensaries to own testing facilities, whereas Gowan’s bill strictly says testing will be done by third-party companies.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement, politicians in favor of legalization and representatives behind the ballot initiative were scratching their heads over the attempt to have legislators not only approve an adult-use legalization effort, but to have them also send it to the ballot.
The idea that lawmakers would ever legalize marijuana on their own, even in the face of an initiative that many presume will be successful, is far-fetched. They would need the votes of a majority of Democrats, who already have voiced support or at least worked with Smart and Safe to get started, and at least a handful of Republicans.
But given the little information Mason Cave, one of the Cannabis Chamber’s board members, has divulged, it appears the referendum is relying on more Republican support.
Cave said he met with roughly 20 legislators before releasing the proposed language, but would only confirm Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge as one of the legislators. But Brett Mecum – a former staffer for Gowan – is serving as the group’s lobbyist.
Shope said his big takeaway is the referendum would give oversight to the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control instead of the Department of Health Services, which oversees the state’s medical marijuana program.
One factor working against getting a referendum out of the Legislature is the Voter Protection Act, which is designed to keep the Legislature from usurping the will of the voters by requiring legislative amendments to “further the purposes” of the original measure and pass with a two-thirds vote.
Cave said his effort would leave things open for as many amendments from the Legislature before it would reach the ballot and would rely on the Department of Liquor to make any changes after that.
Mecum is considered the group’s secret weapon given his Gowan connection and success passing a marijuana testing bill at the end of session. Mecum currently represents RAOF, a management company owned by Cave, which contracts with nonprofit medical marijuana license holders. Cave said at the referendum language launch where Mecum was in attendance, he thought passing SB1494 shows there is a legislative appetite for legalization.
But wanting marijuana properly tested is far from the same as wanting it to be legal.
In the wake of this new push, Stacy Pearson, the spokeswoman for Smart and Safe, said those involved with the ballot effort are not at all worried about the Cannabis Chamber.
She said that the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce’s plan to go through the Legislature at this stage is “the definition of insanity” and if there was an appetite with the lawmakers, they would have gone that route.
“It won’t get out of the Legislature,” Pearson said.
Pearson said the Cannabis Chamber made no attempts to reach Smart and Safe over working together. But Cave said he did reach out to some Arizona Dispensaries Association members before continuing on with his effort. The Cannabis Chamber has not been shy about its dislike of the current ballot initiative, mostly because the initiative is the industry writing “its own rules,” Cave said.
He also told Arizona Capitol Times that if his effort fails next session he would be faced with a crucial decision to make.
“We could switch to an initiative on our own … [or] if [Smart and Safe] doesn’t get too far down the road with their process, maybe we could work together to change language,” Cave said.
Pearson said that won’t happen. They are currently ahead of projections on collecting signatures to place the measure on the ballot and expect to be complete before the end of the 2020 session.
“We’ve already filed and refiled,” Pearson said, referring to going through Legislative Council to make revisions to the original language.
If the Cannabis Chamber receives its best case scenario of reaching the ballot in 2020, there could be two legalization efforts left up to voters for approval and if both receive enough votes to pass, the one with the most votes wins.
Cave said this happened recently in Missouri with three legalization efforts.
Even so, some members of the Legislature still would never go for it. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said that it is highly unlikely the GOP-controlled House would ever agree to legalize pot.
“I just can’t imagine all the stars would line up for it. After all, this is marijuana we’re talking about,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act is currently ahead of its projections and expects to reach the threshold of 237,000 signatures of registered voters by the end of the second quarter next year, Pearson said. They will still continue to collect signatures until the deadline, though, she said.
Yellow Sheet Report editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.