Group files petitions for recreational marijuana on November ballot

J.P. Holyoak who chairs the effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana discusses the drive that resulted in petitions with more than 250,000 signatures to put the issue to voters in November. With him is Kathy Inman who chairs MomForce AZ which supports the measure. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

J.P. Holyoak who chairs the effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana discusses the drive that resulted in petitions with more than 250,000 signatures to put the issue to voters in November. With him is Kathy Inman who chairs MomForce AZ which supports the measure. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- The campaign to allow recreational use of marijuana is on amid questions of whether the measure would allow people to legally drive while under the influence of the drug.

Supporters on Thursday today submitted what they said were petitions with 258,582 signatures seeking to change the law. That is more than 100,000 more than the secretary of state's office needs to declare valid to put the issue on the November ballot.

But amid the nearly 10,000 word proposal is language saying that individuals cannot be penalized solely because they test positive for not just marijuana metabolites that are left over weeks after using the drug but the actual "components of marijuana.' And that would include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element of the drug.

Despite that, attorney Ryan Hurley who represents the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol insisted this would not permit drugged driving. He pointed out that the measure also says the law would not immunize someone from being charged with operating a motor vehicle "while impaired by marijuana or a marijuana product.'

But Hurley acknowledged that there is nothing in the proposal to define what level of marijuana makes someone "impaired.'

He said the legislature could enact a specific standard at which someone is presumed impaired.

That's the situation with alcohol, where a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 is considered a "per se limit' which allows a court, absent any other evidence, to conclude someone was driving while impaired.

"No they can't,' countered Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, a foe of legalized recreational marijuana. He said the language of the ballot measure itself precludes that.

"It says you can't be penalized solely on the basis of the presence of the metabolites or marijuana,' he said.

"A per se limit does exactly that,' Montgomery said. "It says if you have this much THC (in) nanograms per milliliter or over (in your blood), you are impaired.'

And there's something else: Even if lawmakers would approve a presumptive limit, the actual number could be challenged by supporters of marijuana use as arbitrary.

In Colorado, which legalized recreational use of the drug, the law says drivers with five nanograms of active THC in their blood can be prosecuted for driving under the influence of drugs.

"However, no matter the level of THC, law enforcement officers base arrests on observed impairment,' according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Much of the debate that will play out between now and the November election will be on the pros and cons of legalized recreational use of the drug. That will include debate over whether marijuana is better or worse than alcohol which, like marijuana would be if this measure is approved, is legal for adults.

But there's another issue that is likely to generate some opposition.

The measure would limit the number of places where marijuana could legally be sold to something in the 150 range, at least until 2020. That is based on a prohibition capping dispensaries at no more than 10 percent of the number of places that can sell alcohol for off-premises consumption.

Potentially more significant, the initiative gives first preference for these limited number of licenses to the owners of the 99 medical marijuana dispensaries already in operation. And more than a dozen of the five-figure donations that have come in to put the measure on the ballot are from these dispensaries.

But J.P. Holyoak, who chairs the initiative campaign, said this is not any sort of restraint of trade.

"This is in no way, shape or form an oligarchy or a cartel,' he said.

Holyoak said the limit exists to protect neighborhoods.

"Do we want marijuana stores or dispensaries on every other corner?' he said. "Or is this something that should remain in a taxed, regulated and limited basis so that it's not on every other street corner?'

By was of comparison, the web site Potguide.com lists about 170 dispensaries in Denver, though it says 71 of these sell only to medical marijuana patients. Holyoak said initiative organizers here believe that's too much and that 150 for the entire state is sufficient, at least for the time being.

"I think marijuana should be available and accessible for adults who want it,' he said. "But it should not be shoved in our faces like we've seen in Denver.'

Holyoak denied that the limits, which could result in some areas having only one dispensary within driving distance, would result in consumers paying more because of the lack of competition. He said there already is "extreme competition' now among the fewer than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries.

And Holyoak said if lack of competition drove prices up, the new Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control that the initiative would establish has the ability to issue new licenses -- but not until 2020.

Holyoak said campaign donations are coming from beyond the existing dispensaries. He said there is backing from the construction industry which sees the new stores as a business opportunity as well as the tourism community which believes that legal marijuana will result in more visitors from other states.

But a report prepared by Patrick Moran of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee suggests the effects of marijuana tourism would be limited here.

He said there are estimates that anywhere between 2 and 4 percent of marijuana sales in Colorado are made to out-of-state residents. But Moran said Arizona should not expect anything like that, as it would be competing for those same tourists.

Proponents also claim that legalizing marijuana by adults will not result in more illegal use by teens. That is backed by a recent report by the Colorado Health Department which found that the trend for current and lifetime marijuana use among high schoolers there has remained "stable' since 2005.

Kathy Inman, executive director of MomForce AZ, did not dispute that more adults using recreational marijuana could mean more access to the drug by children, much in the same way that teens can drink their parents' liquor.

But Inman, whose group is focused on preventing abuse of other illegal drugs and legal prescription drugs, said she's not concerned. And she derided anti-initiative measures that said young children will overdose from their parents' edibles.

"If a child comes across that cookie, they're going to possibly sleep for a couple of days,' Inman said. "If a child comes across some pills, they could perish, they could die.'

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

PHOENIX -- Arizonans would buy nearly $500 million worth of marijuana a year by 2020 if voters agree in November to allows its use here for recreational purposes, according to a new report.

The study by the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee figures legalization would generate nearly $82 million in taxes when the program is fully implemented. That includes $74 million based on a tax rate of 15 percent of retail costs, with the balance coming from things like licensing dealers and growers.

That puts the the price paid by consumers at the cash register north of $490 million.

Of what's collected, legislative budget staffers say $27.8 million would go to general aid to education, with an identical amount available to help schools pay for full-day kindergarten programs.

The analysis was prepared as backers of the initiative prepare to turn in petitions with more than 250,000 signatures to put the issue to voters. Even with a certain percentage likely being disqualified, that should provide a sufficient margin to meet the legally required minimum of 150,642.

Backers of the initiative, funded largely with dollars from the national Marijuana Policy Project, have been touting the financial benefits of legalization. This, however, is the first state-sponsored analysis putting actual numbers behind the claims.

But Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, one of the leaders of the opposition, said none of this should sway voters into approving something he considers bad public policy. Montgomery said it does not take into account additional costs from allowing anyone age 21 and older use the drug, from additional addiction treatment and increased accidents to lower work productivity.

And even if that were not the case, Montgomery said there's less there than meets the eye.

He called the $27.8 million a year in state aid to schools a "pittance,' especially compared with the fact that voters just approved Proposition 123 which will generate more than $300 million a year. Put another way, Montgomery said, the money comes out to less than $26 a year per student in public schools.

By comparison, that $82 million estimate of total revenues from legal marijuana sales by 2020 compares to more than $71 million a year generated in taxes on alcoholic beverages in 2015, the most recent numbers available.

The numbers in the JLBC report differ somewhat from estimates prepared earlier this by the Tax Foundation. That group said legalization of marijuana and the 15 percent tax that would go with it could generate $113 million.

But JLBC analyst Patrick Moran, who prepared the report, said that is based on an assumption that Arizona would have the same level of sales as Colorado. That, he said, is flawed.

"Even prior to legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Colorado had consistently significantly higher rates of marijuana use than Arizona,' he wrote. Moran said recent figures from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health show Arizona had about 587,100 adult marijuana users in 2013, versus 705,900 in Colorado at the same time.

And Moran said there's something else at work: The Arizona measure would initially cap the number of places where the drug can be sold at fewer than 150, versus nearly 1,500 liquor stores in the state; Colorado has no such cap.

The revenues generated by that 15 percent levy on marijuana do not include what state and local governments can collect on top of that in sales taxes.

Moran figures the state tax would generate another $24.8 million 2020, with cities and counties getting about $6.5 million of that in revenue sharing. Sales taxes by local governments would generate $14 million.

-- HOWARD FISCHER, Capitol Media Services

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