Friday, October 11, 2013

Safer AZ October Legislative Update

Safer AZ October Legislative Update
Mikel Weisser

Safer Arizona is a non-profit political action committee that focuses on cannabis reform through the legislative process—addressing laws and politicians directly. Currently, we are working on three legislative approaches to reducing the harm Arizonans suffer from unjust and unnecessarily harsh cannabis laws.
A.      The “Tax & Regulate” Citizens’ Initiative—Originally the creation of Safer AZ treasurer, Dennis Bohlke, based on Colorado’s successful 2012 citizens’ initiative, Bohlke offered the text of the initiative online for three months for public input before submitting it to the AZ Secretary of State’s office in June.  Intended to be purely an “organically grown” citizen-driven petition drive, SA’s work in promoting the petition has been mostly word of mouth w petition gathering at public cannabis friendly events such as NORML meetings, large-scale protests and concerts or live music venues. Publicity effort have been inconsistent, but gaining momentum and have now included national and international press coverage. Recent articles in the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, Culture Magazine, Rueters, and the Huffington Post have increased public awareness and extended the circle of petition gatherers, though the majority of the work is occurring in the metropolitan areas of the state.

A new development in promoting petition circulation has been the additional step of conducting appeals at political party meetings. Party members are familiar w the importance and process of petition gathering and are quick to see the eventual political advantage of being publicly active on this issue, despite the fact that many of older, more traditional party members balk at the idea. Of note: in attending events w both major parties, a trend is developing. Members of both the Democratic and Republican Parties are supporting the petition and volunteering, though leadership is wary. In urban districts, GOP take as strong an interest in advancing the petition as Dems and in Mohave County, the GOP 1st vice chair and other members of their leadership are actively advancing the petition and cannabis issues in general. Resistance is essentially generational, but it should be noted the “hippies of the 60s” are now the voters in their 60s.

B.      The “Harm Reduction Measure” Statehouse Bill—This bill hopes to reduce criminal sentences for cannabis possession from felony to misdemeanor. The felony penalty law is a legacy from the waning years of impeached governor, Evan Mecham and leads to 18,000 charges a year. While the vast majority of these cases end up in a diversion or TASC program w charges eventually reduced to misdemeanor, lives are still wrecked and the charges can jeopardize parenting, state assistance, ed funding, college admissions, military qualifications and even gun-owner rights. Also the creation of Dennis Bohlke, the “Harm Reduction Measure” is a rewrite of ARS13-3405 (the section of state statute dealing w cannabis/marijuana), editing the majority of the language and lowering penalties for various levels of possession. Bohlke had originally drafted the legislation in 2010 and presented it as a citizens’ initiative, but withdrew it to focus efforts on the successful Prop 203 MMJ law.

The majority of my work as legislative liaison for Safer AZ has focused on advancing this bill into the AZ statehouse for introduction at the upcoming Jan. 13 opening of new AZ legislative session. To that end, I have been polling the statehouse and conducting one-on-one sit-down presentations to members of the state legislature. In addition to having meetings w state representatives myself, I have also brought members of the cannabis community and leadership in Safer AZ to meet w the legislature and other key, including the Department of Public Health (overseers of the state’s medical marijuana program) and representatives of law enforcement and criminal justice.

At the Legislature, thus far (as of 10/11/13) we have contacted the offices of 32 of 60 representatives (including the office of the Speaker of the House) and 11 of 30 senators. Four senators and fourteen representatives have had official “sit-down” meetings, or extended casual discussions. Responses tend to fall toward party lines w the majority of Democrats supporting the idea of the bill and several offering extensive advice on how to advance this legislation. Particularly helpful on the Democratic side have been Tucson area representatives Victoria Steele and Stephanie Mach and PHX area representatives Mark Cardenas, Jonathan Larkin and Andrew Sherwood. The majority of the Democrats polled however, stand firm in their belief that the bill must be advanced through the legislative process by Republican leadership to succeed in the AZ political landscape. On the GOP side, in the senate, LD5’s Dr. Kelli Ward & LD13’s Don Shooter have both offered support, w Sen. Ward inviting Safer AZ to attend a stakeholders’ on a somewhat related alcohol measure and Sen. Shooter advancing the text of the bill to the senate’s legislative counsel for review (this process is currently underway.)

The majority of the GOP membership approached on the bill have grave concerns over getting constituency support and some, such as LD16’s Kelly Townsend, are adamantly opposed to any lessening of cannabis enforcement and, in casual conversations, have refused to take official meetings on the issue. Others, such as LD5’s Doris Goodale and LD25’s Justin Pierce (both on the judiciary committee, the committee that would hear the bill) & LD1’s Karen Fann, while supportive of the ideas in the proposed changes are concerned that GOP leadership and right-wing voter resistance to easing cannabis restrictions make any ameliorating changes in cannabis enforcement highly unlikely. Citing anti-cannabis crusaders such as LD12’s Eddie Farnsworth, LD23’s John Kavanagh in the House & LD 20’s Kimberly Yee in the senate, mainstream GOP leaders suggest that the current complexion of the statehouse makes the bill a tough sell.

I am not daunted, however, as the continuing process itself is shifting opinion all by itself and cannabis reform on the national scene is shifting AZ trends. We still have yet to contact over half of the legislators and have only conducted meetings w 18 of 90. A new development on this front is exhorting citizens, at political party and cannabis-related/friendly meetings to contact their legislators, call on them to support the “Harm Reduction Measure,” and ask for meetings to discuss cannabis.

Working w NORML, we are in the early planning stages of turning Jan. 13, the opening day of the new legislative session, into a cannabis education day, as part of an all-out push to get the statehouse to take on cannabis reform. My office continues to focus on political education in general and has now taken to including presentations to political clubs and civic organization in addition to continuing to schedule legislative meetings as time permits.

(Currently as part of me keeping track of my work, Safer AZ is conducting a poll of legislative positions on various cannabis legislative issues and will present the results as part of NORML’s upcoming voter awareness guide and also as part of our efforts to generate public support for cannabis reform.)

C.      Tucson City Ordinance “Measure AZ”—Created by Tucson Shawn Earl, based on Oakland’s city ordinance AZ, which lowered cannabis enforcement to “lowest police priority,” the Tucson activists of Safer AZ have been working with the city council for months trying to advance this ordinance. Recently (Sept. 25) representatives from Safer AZ met w Tucson city council member Paul Cunningham and the city attorney to discuss the measure. However in subsequent negotiations the city has shifted their position and leaning toward a more restrictive measure that only covers MMJ patients and then in only limited circumstances. The Tucson Safer AZ activists are continuing to push for their measure through public outreach such as speaking at events, conducting fund raiser concerts and appearances at city council meetings.

D.      On the Horizon—Safer AZ has also been asked from various sources to address other injustices in AZ cannabis law and have begun preliminary work in addressing the following issues: 1) Metabolite measurement in DUI cases, particular for MMJ patients; 2) Clarification of the “concentrates and resins” in ARS 13 and ARS 36, to allow continued production of edible MMJ products to provide for the large numbers of patients for whom smoking is not a preferred delivery method. Both of these issues are best addressed through legislative action and awaiting the drafting of bills to introduce to the legislature.

Safer AZ

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