Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use so far. More states will vote on full legalization of cannabis in November. One of those states is likely to be Arizona.
The battle over a possible ballot question has been heating up in the Grand Canyon state. On June 30, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted over 258 thousand petition signatures, clearly surpassing the threshold of 150,642 needed to put the measure on the ballot. The secretary of state is now expected to determine whether the initiative has qualified by late August.
In the meantime, the opponents of recreational marijuana in Arizona have taken legal steps to halt the vote. 13 groups and individuals–including Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk–filed a lawsuit in July with the aim of keeping the initiative off the November ballot. The group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy says, legalization backers were deceiving voters while promoting the measure.
The initiative, if adopted, would allow adults age 21 and older to carry up to one ounce of cannabis and consume it privately. Such adults could also cultivate up to six plants in an enclosed space and possess the cannabis produced by these plants. A 15 percent tax would be charged on all retail marijuana sales and most of that money is supposed to go to Arizona schools and education programs.
Democrat Ruben Gallego recently became the first Arizona congressman to support the initiative. He believes legalization will eliminate the dangerous underground market for marijuana and thus make Arizona communities safer.
In Arizona’s northeastern neighbor Colorado the sale of recreational marijuana has been legal since 2014. According to Fortune, sales of cannabis there increased by more than 42 percent in 2015, resulting in more than $ 135 million in tax revenue, an increase of 78 percent over the tax revenue in the first year of full legalization. Clearly, the marijuana business is booming in the Centennial State and that’s because use has gone up.
For supporters of recreational marijuana, regulating and taxing cannabis rather than enforcing prohibition, has been very successful in Colorado and should be emulated by other states. Opponents of legalization in Arizona and elsewhere see things a little differently.
Among other things, they fear the increased access and use will inevitably lead to increased access and use of cannabis products by children despite the fact that it would only be legal to use for people 21 and older. Many experts believe that regular use by adolescents with developing brains can have multiple adverse effects, including a decline in brain function as determined by IQ.
Also, the addiction risk is higher for young people. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “people who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are 4 to 7 times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.” Although cannabis is legally only available to adults over 21, Colorado had the highest level of any U.S. state of 12-17-year-olds reporting marijuana use in the last 30 days for the period 2013-14. Similarly high figures are reported for the other states with full legalization.
Keeping marijuana out of the hands of teenagers is a tall order. A study by the University of Florida found that currently 54 percent of young adults will have used marijuana by the age of 21. “The researchers found the likelihood that adolescents would start using marijuana climbed steadily starting at age 11, reaching a first peak at age 16.”
After a dip at 17, the researchers found the second peak at 18, well below the legal threshold of 21. The fear of opponents is that legalization will signal harmlessness to teenagers who could use cannabis in even larger numbers despite the continuing prohibition for that age group.
Enforcement of the regulatory regime would fall to the police. It’s not an easy task. Law enforcement officials in Colorado struggle to cope with the new situation.
Chief John Jackson, a former president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, told the Boston Globe that “legalization simply moved much faster than law enforcement officers’ ability to keep up with it.”
There is no reliable protocol to determine if someone is driving under the influence of cannabis and the black market is not likely to disappear given the considerable demand among adolescents.
According to Chief Jackson, legalization has not given law enforcement more time to focus on more serious crimes or bigger drug problems. Over two years into full legalization in Colorado, he told the Boston Globe, “we’re not seeing that.”
Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey is strongly opposed to recreational cannabis. “45 percent of pot sales in Colorado are edibles such as candy bars, lollipops, and cookies,” Ducey wrote. “Students suck on lollipops between classes, go into class stoned, learn nothing, and teachers are increasingly helpless. How is this supposed to be good for Arizona?”
The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association Board of Directors also expects negative consequences and formally declared its opposition in July. “Arizona already faces considerable public health challenges, especially when it comes to substance abuse. Expanding access to recreational marijuana will only exacerbate these issues,” AzHHA President Greg Vigdor said in a statement.