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Advocates see Arizona closer to legalizing recreational marijuana

Democratic bills to legalize the recreational use of marijuana have gone nowhere at the Arizona State Legislature, but advocates say their main strategy has always involved the ballot box.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the Washington, D.C.-based group behind the effort that legalized medical marijuana in Arizona, plans to begin collecting signatures in late April to get the issue before voters in 2016.

While an effort to make the 2014 ballot foundered, Carlos Alfaro, Arizona political co-director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said there is a larger coalition for legalization this time around, in part because Washington and Colorado have done so.

“Law enforcement, parents, students at Arizona State and beyond – all the other universities in the state are going to be crucial to this,” he said.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, authored bills to decriminalize marijuana possession and to legalize and tax recreational marijuana for adults age 21 and older. Both failed to even see a committee.

With conservatives in control of the Legislature, Alfaro said legalization would have to be done through voters.

“Most people don’t have the time to go through the politics of the Legislature, contact the Legislature and actually get something done,” he said. “It’s going to have to be through the building of coalitions and the ballot initiative we’re building for 2016.”

In 2010, when voters passed Proposition 203 to legalize marijuana use for medical reasons, Alfaro’s group led the campaign.

He said public opinion is heading in the right direction this time around.

A poll by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University suggested that 45 percent of Arizonans support making recreational marijuana legal for those 18 and older.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said David Daugherty, associate director of the Morrison Institute. “There has been over the years more and more acceptance of marijuana, and I suspect more and more states will legalize it for recreational use.”

Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it’s common-sense to legalize marijuana.

“It’s unconscionable to saddle someone with a crime for something less harmful than alcohol,” he said. “You would never arrest an adult for drinking, so it shouldn’t be a crime to use a safer substance like marijuana.”

On March 17, the marijuana advocacy group Safer Arizona sponsored a march through downtown Phoenix promoting legalization.

“The plant itself is an incredible medicine that has been used for tens of thousands of years,” said Mikel Weisser, the group’s treasurer. “Yet in the last 80 years our country has led the world in destroying the lives of people who would otherwise be taking care of their health.”

But Justin McBride, program manager for drugfreeazkids.org, said legalizing recreational use of marijuana would lead to more children using the drug.

“When you increase access to a substance, you’re increasing youth use of a substance,” he said. “In 2010, when Prop. 203 passed and the medical marijuana initiative went through, we started seeing an increase in youth obtaining marijuana from people with a medical marijuana card.”

A 2012 survey sponsored by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission found that 11.8 percent of students said they obtained marijuana from someone with a medical marijuana card.

“Just because there are other substances that are harmful to one’s health doesn’t mean we need to introduce another that is legal to obtain,” McBride said.