Second Time’s a Charm? Arizona Voters Get New Shot at Legalizing Recreational Pot

Former UFC fighter George Roop is planning to expand his family’s 40,000-square-foot indoor cannabis farm in Tucson, but not because of Arizona’s proposal for recreational use. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Former UFC fighter George Roop, a large-scale grower who feeds Arizona’s expanding medical marijuana industry, didn’t build his family’s Tucson Cannabis Campus for a recreational market. His plan started much earlier.

“This is something I’ve been building in my head for the past 20 years,” the Tucson native said of the 40,000-square-foot warehouse farm, where he produces cannabis for about 20 dispensaries.

But the 10-year UFC veteran is ready to absorb the influx of cannabis users that legalization would bring — he has a development plan for another 200,000 square feet of cultivation.

Starting with early voting Oct. 7, Arizonans began casting ballots on Proposition 207, a voter initiative that would legalize cannabis, launch a retail market, designate where taxes would go and revamp penalties for possession.

The 17-page law would allow anyone over 21 to grow six plants, keep everything they produce and travel with up to an ounce. It would allow about 130 retail shops, although most will likely be dual-licensed, existing medical shops.

It’s Arizona’s second attempt at legalization in the past four years. In 2016, voters rejected a similar measure by 51% to 49%. It’s a tight race again. Support for the measure was at 46% last week with opposition at 45%, one poll showed.

Lisa James, chairwoman of Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, a non-profit opposed to the new law, thinks the question isn’t whether Arizona should legalize, but how.

“Even for people who think, ‘OK, maybe recreational or adult use is OK,’ what they’ve written in Prop 207 is not OK,” James said.

The law would put kids at risk, make roads less safe and be difficult to change, she said.

Smart & Safe Arizona, the political action committee driving the legalization effort, did not respond to multiple requests for input into this story.

Arizona has had a medical cannabis program since 2011. That program now covers about 280,000 registered patients and 123 open dispensaries (130 are licensed), according to the state Department of Health Services, which would also manage the recreational program.

The Smart and Safe Arizona Act would allow anyone over 21 to transport up to an ounce of flower or 5 grams of concentrates. It would allow adults to grow in a locked space, with a maximum of 12 plants per residence, and keep all of the cannabis and concentrate that comes from it.

The law would eliminate the smell of cannabis — fresh or burned — as probable cause for searches, except in vehicles, and eliminate a metabolite test as sole cause for DUI arrests. To get a conviction, prosecutors would also have to prove a driver is impaired.

“It’s going to make it really difficult for prosecutors to prosecute marijuana DUIs,” James said.

The measure — as with all voter initiatives in Arizona — would require another voter initiative to repeal or a three-fourths majority of both chambers of the Legislature to amend. James calls that another strike against the proposed law.

“It’s virtually impossible to change,” she said. “We’re going to be locked into this for the foreseeable future.”

Under Proposition 207, having more than an ounce but less than 2.5 ounces would be a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $300. Current law allows a felony charge for any amount of cannabis. For anyone under 21, the new penalty would be a civil $100 fine for the first offense, and a misdemeanor for a second. It would allow courts to require education for violators under 21.

Support for the initiative has dipped in recent weeks, according to an OH Predictive Insights poll of likely voters. With just 9% of voters undecided, 46% of 600 Arizonans polled voiced support, while 45% opposed it. A similar poll in July showed 60% supported the ballot measure, OH reported.

“I think the people are becoming more educated about what’s in the 17 pages,” James said.

Although the new law would restrict advertising and packaging aimed at kids, James doesn’t think it’s enough, because the billboards and social media ads aimed at adults would multiply.

“Our kids are going to see this everywhere they go, from billboards to advertisements and on social media,” she said.

The law gives a head start to operators of the state’s 123 medical cannabis dispensaries. After they apply and are approved or rejected, others could apply for the rest of roughly 130 recreational licenses statewide — one for every 10 pharmacies, of which there were 1,309 as of Oct. 6.

The Green Halo provides cannabis-infused edibles – like these 10 mg gummies – to dozens of dispensaries. The Tucson dispensary is planning to expand, if Arizona voters approve recreational use Nov. 3. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

Josh Carlson, operations manager for The Green Halo, a Tucson dispensary that opened in 2012, can’t speak for his employer. The organization doesn’t take stands on political issues, he said, but he personally supports it.

“I think Arizona’s long overdue,” Carlson said. “I think it’s going to pass.”

But he isn’t sure 130 shops would be enough for Arizona’s 7.2 million residents and millions of annual tourists. Even without the added recreational traffic, a line of about two dozen people had formed outside The Green Halo on a recent weekday. That’s normal, Carlson said.

“There’s a little bit of a concern that… the market is going to be underserved,” he said. “If you look at Colorado, you see over 500 retail dispensaries and over 700 cultivations for 5.7 million people.”

The Green Halo will have to expand, should they get a recreational license. They are adding 1,500 square feet to their wholesale concentrate production space. Most dispensaries will have to scale up their cultivation facilities, each of which in Arizona must be affiliated with a dispensary license, Carlson said.

“There are a lot of (medical) license-holders who are looking for larger partner cultivations to replace smaller ones,” Carlson said.

Opponents of the measure have been outspent almost 30-to-1 by supporters, largely dispensary organizations that had kicked in more than $3.5 million by July, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

If the measure passes, the state Department of Health Services would immediately transfer $45 million from the medical cannabis program to various state programs, including $15 million to fund teacher scholarships; $10 million to DHS for public health programs; $10 million to the Office of Highway Safety to enforce DUI; and $2 million for a social equity program to foster minority involvement in the cannabis industry.

A Joint Legislative Budget Committee analysis estimates the 16% excise tax and other fees would pour $166 million per year into state coffers after several years of ramping up. Regular state sales taxes would also apply and would raise another $88 million per year, the committee estimates.

Then at the end of each year, leftover funds from the recreational program would go to community college workforce development programs (33% of the funds), law enforcement and fire departments (31.4%), state highways (25.4%), public health (10%) and the Attorney General’s Office (0.2%).

Roop doesn’t care if the measure passes, because what they do day-to-day wouldn’t change.

The Tucson Cannabis Campus is in it for the long haul. Roop supports the law, because it supports the cannabis industry, but he isn’t making plans for this specific law, he said.

“Everybody has a plan, until you get kicked in the face. Then your plan changes.”

Voting has begun on Arizona’s Proposition 207, a voter initiative that would legalize cannabis for anyone over 21. Voters are evenly split between support and opposition, a recent poll shows. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)
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