When Arizona voters saw adult use legalization on their ballots in the fall of 2016, they were the only ones, out of five states with adult use legalization on the ballot that year, to vote “No.” This time around, proponents are determined not to let legalization slip through their fingers.
Today, Smart and Safe Arizona, the campaign behind this year’s adult use ballot initiative, submitted 420,000 signatures with the Arizona Secretary of State, and said in a statement that they are confident that the initiative will pass. This is well above the 237,645 signatures required, despite a legal setback that prevented the campaign from gathering online signatures after the arrival of COVID-19 social distancing measures.
Stacy Pearson, a spokesperson for Smart and Safe, told Cannabis Wire, “We’re feeling great about the total number of signatures that were collected, particularly given the obstacles that we were facing this year,” adding, “This is a monumental step forward for the state, both in terms of revenue and jobs and criminal justice reform.”
The numbers so far are in their favor. A June 1 poll from HighGround Public Affairs Consultants showed that 65% of Arizona voters were likely to vote “Yes” on the ballot question, far more than the 48.68% who voted “Yes” in 2016.
So why the shift in public opinion? One reason might be the visibility of medical cannabis, which has been legal in Arizona since 2010.
“We have a quarter million qualified patients in Arizona, and by ratio of overall population count, that’s one of the highest across the country,” Samuel Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association told Cannabis Wire. “So I think that that kind of penetration of normalcy is something that is also a strength as we’re going in.” The Arizona Dispensaries Association has provided support and contributions to the Smart and Safe campaign. The chairperson of the campaign committee, Chad Campbell, is a former Arizona state representative.
Another possible reason for the shift: Opposition to the measure has largely dwindled. In the 2016 campaign, the opposition raised almost as much in campaign contributions as supporters. The measure’s main detractor now is Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, which has, according to campaign finance records, raised only $50,025.00 to Smart and Safe’s $2,769,254.68 (as of March 31, the latest available data, but the campaign says the figure is now over $3 million).
“Those folks, we will never persuade to legalize,” said Smart and Safe’s Pearson. “In fact, I would assume that they probably would prefer alcohol still be prohibited. They certainly haven’t been effective in their ability to fundraise or grow their following.”
In a statement from Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, chairwoman of the committee Lisa James said, “We’ve had another four years to see how legalization of recreational marijuana has harmed states like California, Colorado, and Washington. We can’t let this happen to Arizona. We’re still waiting to see if this flawed proposition makes it to the ballot, but Arizonans can rest assured that we will oppose any efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in our state. It’s just not worth the risk.”
The legalization ballot measure, if passed, would make possession and use of cannabis legal for adults age twenty one and older; grant “marijuana establishment licenses” to vertically integrated cannabis businesses; allow residents to grow up to six plants individually, and twelve at a residence with two or more people; and set aside funds from a 16% excise tax, which would be imposed on top of an 8.4% average sales tax (depending on the city or county).
A projection for Smart and Safe by Jim Rounds, an economic consultant who used to work for the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee, estimated that legalization would bring in $400 million a year for the state in tax collections after an implementation period of four years. After the cost of implementation, 33% of the remaining funds will go to community college districts; 31.4% to law enforcement, including police and fire departments; 25.4% to a “highway user revenue fund”; and 10% to a “justice reinvestment fund,” which will be split between programs focused on public health, jail diversion, substance use prevention, reducing the prison population, and restoration of civil rights, among others.
The initiative would also make it possible for more people to petition for expungement of their records for certain cannabis-related violations, and reserves twenty-six “marijuana establishment licenses” for members of communities disproportionately impacted by past enforcement of cannabis laws. An earlier draft of the initiative, filed in August 2019, did not include the twenty-six reserved licenses. The newer draft, filed the following month, also raised the level of cannabis possession eligible for expungement from one ounce to 2.5 ounces.
The Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce wrote a competing ballot initiative last year that would have made it easier for newcomers to the industry to access adult use licenses. Smart and Safe would give existing medical cannabis dispensaries a head start to apply for licenses as “early applicants” from January to March of 2021. (Applicants with fewer than two medical dispensaries in their county would also be able to apply early.) Only after issuing establishment licenses to qualified early applicants would other applications be issued. There are currently 121 medical cannabis dispensaries in Arizona, according to an Arizona Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program representative, which, like prospective adult-use applicants, must operate both cultivation and retail.
Amid national protests calling for the defunding of police departments, the portion of cannabis tax revenue allocated to law enforcement under Smart and Safe could raise some eyebrows.
“My job as a straight white man who has benefited from an industry that has largely pushed out people who are not like me is to really take time to listen and learn and reassess our approach,” said Richard of the allocation. “That being said, structurally, the way that it’s written out in the initiative, it just can’t change if we want to be on the ballot.”
As Cannabis Wire first reported, the Smart and Safe campaign has largely been funded by cannabis industry giants, including Curaleaf, MedMen, and Harvest Enterprises, Inc, also known as Harvest Health and Recreation, the CEO of which is also the president of the Arizona Dispensaries Association. Harvest alone, which opened its first dispensary in Arizona and has the largest footprint in the state, has contributed upwards of a million dollars so far. The Arizona Dispensaries Association had contributed $60,000 in the election cycle as of March 31, according to the most recent campaign finance report available. In an unexpected turn, MM Enterprises, USA, LLC, also known as MedMen, announced in December of 2019 that it would sell its three businesses in Arizona after contributing $200,000 to Smart and Safe in the months prior.
“There was no impact on our fundraising or our campaign planning following their business decision,” said Pearson.
Now, the wait begins for the state’s Secretary of State office to determine whether enough of the signatures are valid, and whether voters will see adult use on their ballots, once more, this November.