The line is long at the first Arizona medical marijuana dispensary to open in the state on Dec. 6, 2012, Arizona Organix in Glendale, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin, The Associated Press)

Arizona marijuana legalization looking like sure bet for 2016 ballot

PHOENIX — A proposal to legalize marijuana in Arizona is on track to qualify for the ballot as the state joins a growing movement looking to loosen pot laws around the country in the November elections.

A spokesman for Arizona’s leading recreational marijuana initiative says the measure has already collected about 140,000 of the 150,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot, though the campaign intends to collect more than necessary to make up for signatures that get disqualified. The campaign has until July to collect the remaining signatures, making it highly likely that the measure will go before voters in November.

“We are riding the wave of public opinion that prefers regulation and taxation rather than criminalization and prohibition,” said Carlos Alfaro, Marijuana Policy Project’s Arizona political director.

Arizona is one of least nine states that have pending recreational marijuana initiatives this year, including California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada.

The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act would allow people over the age of 21 to carry as much as one ounce of marijuana, grow up to six plants and carry up to five grams of “concentrated marijuana,” such as hash oil or other cannabis extracts.

It would also establish a state licensing agency for marijuana while placing a 15 percent tax on marijuana and related products. Eighty percent of the tax proceeds would go toward education, and 20 percent would be set aside for the Department of Health Services to conduct education campaigns on the harms of marijuana and alcohol abuse.

An unusual alliance has formed to oppose the measure. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and backers of a separate pot measure seeking to qualify for the ballot have come out against the plan.

Montgomery is staunchly opposed to drug legalization and also believes the way the measure is written allows existing medical marijuana dispensaries to essentially have a monopoly over pot sales in the state.

The initiative would allow the state to issue about 150 licenses for businesses to sell marijuana. Medical pot dispensaries will have first dibs at obtaining 120 of those licenses, leaving only a few dozen available for anyone else.

“This is the 21st-century way that one drug dealer keeps another drug dealer off their corner. This is an absolute abuse of the initiative process by a special interest group in Arizona,” Montgomery said.

Jason Medar, manager for a competing initiative known as the Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, says Marijuana Policy Project’s proposal doesn’t offer enough consumer protections. Medar said his initiative will make it easier for those not already in the medical marijuana industry to get a license. That initiative has collected about 70,000 signatures so far.

Alfaro said he doesn’t believe that every medical marijuana dispensary will necessarily apply for a recreational license and that his campaign offers a more balanced approach to legalization.

“Not only do we think this is going to be on the ballot but it’s the most viable policy we have,” he said. “We have had prohibition since 1937. We have to start at a point that people are willing to accept.”

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas denounced the initiative in a press release last week saying it would cause a contradiction for teachers who, on one hand, tell students not to use drugs and, on the other, would receive supplies and funding bought with money raised from taxes on marijuana.

“By using drug money to educate our children, regardless of the drug we choose, we’re creating a world where we’re funding our schools by betting against the people graduating from them, and I cannot morally support that stance,” Douglas said.