It’s Legal, But at What Cost? The Legalization of Marijuana in Arizona

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Photo: Nick Canchola
It’s Legal, But at What Cost? The Legalization of Marijuana in Arizona

By Nick Canchola


So, we finally did it. Recreational marijuana is now legal in Arizona and a couple of other states. But what does this really mean? 


First, let’s take a look at the history of weed-related ballots in AZ. Way back in 2010, Arizonans passed Proposition 203, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Initiative. This bill narrowly passed, with a 50.1 to 49.9% split, and faced a slew of legal issues in the following years. Sen. Jan Brewer filed a lawsuit against Proposition 207 that was later dropped, looking to clarify the legality of marijuana. Former Arizona State Representative Amanda Reeve also proposed her own house bill, seeking to make it illegal “to lawfully possess or use marijuana on the campus of any public university, college, community college, or post-secondary educationa institution.” However, this was struck down as unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court.


In 2016, the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative, an initiative statute seeking legalization of recreational marijuana, was narrowly defeated by 3 points. The Smart and Safe Act, a similar but much more robust proposition, was finally approved in Arizona’s most recent 2020 elections. The passing of Proposition 207 resulted in the legalization of recreational marijuana for those 21 years and older. Additionally, the proposition assigned all marijuana regulation to the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) and created a 16% tax on all marijuana sales divided between the following: community college districts, municipal police, sheriff and fire departments, fire districts, the state's Highway User Revenue Fund, and a new Justice Reinvestment Fund. 


Four years ago, Proposition 205 mistakenly had no mention of criminal justice reform. Regarding those impacted by the justice system, today’s Proposition 207 now allows anyone convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes—possession, consumption, cultivation, and transportation—to petition the expungement of their criminal record starting on July 12, 2021.


While this is all great, there are a couple of areas where Proposition 207 falls short. 


The economic aspects of Proposition 207 still enable the monopolization of largely white-owned marijuana distributors. In an attempt to combat this, Proposition 207 also requires the state to issue 26 licenses under a social equity ownership program. This social equity ownership program’s purpose is to aid owners from “communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of previous marijuana laws.” While most other states have similar programs to address the racial inequities around marijuana, do these programs really promote real change? Marijuana Business Daily explains the flaws in these programs, “And even cities that have awarded social equity licenses are still lacking the capital support those businesses need to succeed in a hypercompetitive market.” The root of inequality in the Marijuana industry isn’t due to a lack of licenses, but rather, a lack of business and legal resources for minority-owners to compete for long-term, against more established marijuana dispensaries.


The aspects of Proposition 207 that address criminal reform could also be stronger. In 2019, the percentage of marijuana-related prosecutions in Arizona was at 22%, which ranked second in all drug-related prosecutions in the state. Additionally, Arizona had the 4th largest incarceration rate at 585 per 100,000 people. With this in mind, Proposition 207 only distributes 10% of the revenue generated from tax to the Justice Reinvestment Fund. In a state where incarceration is a massive issue, is 10% enough? Upon further inspection, expunging marijuana records might be more difficult than perceived. 12 News writes that expungement only applies to convictions with less than an ounce. But in many cases, “court records don’t show how much marijuana someone actually had.” Sadly, this tiny detail could prevent many Arizonans from clearing their records if they don’t have sufficient legal resources or enough evidence proving they were arrested with an ounce or less of marijuana.


When will Arizona citizens be able to purchase recreational weed products? 


Steve White, the CEO of Tempe-based cannabis company Harvest Health and Recreation, told The Arizona Republic that business licenses will most likely be issued by late March or early April 2021.


While the Smart and Safe Act is a step in the right direction towards ending the war on drugs, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Chandler Smith from the Arizona State Law Journal points out that “[AZ] DHS has not announced the details and requirements of the social equity ownership program,” so there's still time to pressure the state to make policy adjustments. Smith suggests a “mentorship program with local attorneys who want to assist social equity ownership license holders with regulatory compliance.” This mentorship program would provide tax incentives for real estate businesses, give access to financial services and human resource training, and establish rules that prevent fraud as similar laws are passed around the country. 


The fight for cannabis rights is far from over. And even when left-leaning laws and propositions are passed that seem progressive, continue investigating and questioning all policies.


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