Burning debate: How would legalizing marijuana affect Arizona?

Oct 18, 2016, 7:27 AM | Updated: 11:30 am
(Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)...
(Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

PHOENIX — There are two propositions on the 2016 ballot in Arizona, but one is generating a lot more debate than the other.

Proposition 205 would essentially legalize marijuana in the state, in theory turning the drug into a financial resource for Arizona schools through taxation.

But the initiative is divisive. Proponents of the measure say it will take selling power away from the Mexican drug cartels and other criminals while boosting school funding. Opponents argue it won’t deliver on its financial promises and could create a more dangerous situation for Arizona drivers and families.

Recently, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Chairman J.P. Holyoaks and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who is against legalized marijuana, joined KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes to discuss Prop. 205.

Both Holyoaks and Montgomery had a discussion with Bruce and Pamela about the measure, then sat down for a roundtable discussion. Both interviews are embedded below, along with the discussion.

I went through all the audio and broke down the arguments surrounding Prop. 205 below. To make it easier, I divided the information by topic.

Has legalized marijuana worked in other states?

Four states across the country, along with Washington, D.C., allow the recreational use of marijuana. Five more — including Arizona — will vote on it in November’s general election.

While most states are still working to decide its effects, Colorado is typically viewed as the barometer for the drug’s impact. It, along with Washington, were the first states to legalize the drug in 2012.

Since then, much has been made of Colorado’s decision. Some have looked to the financial boon it provided to the state’s education system — which has been divisive in itself — while others have cited the problems of more people driving under the influence and the concerns of people transporting the drug outside of the state.

With only four years of information available, most experts are divided along the same lines that split people in Arizona.

There is also the question of legality. Though states are legalizing the drug, the federal government still classifies it as illegal. However, that may be changing soon.

Will it actually fund Arizona schools?

By all accounts, it appears Prop. 205 will pump money into the state education system, but no one is really clear how much.

“The [Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee] estimates that we’re looking at about $55 million per year directly to education and that’s a net number,” he said.

Of that $55 million generated annually, 80 percent will go to fund Arizona schools while 20 percent will be given to the Arizona Department of Health Services for educational programs on marijuana, alcohol and other substances.

However, Montgomery said Holyoaks’ math leaves out several factors. He said the money from taxed marijuana will first be used to pay the overhead costs of both the Department of Marijuana (which will be created if Prop. 205 passes) and Department of Revenue’s overhead for looking into cash-only businesses, paying back the medical marijuana fund and giving half of dispensary licensing fees to municipalities.

Once those checks are written, the rest of the money would go to schools.

Holyoaks said the proposition’s language would prohibit funds from marijuana from reaching the state Legislature’s hands.

“We did not allow this money to go to the state Legislature because, frankly, they’ve done an abysmal job of paying for education in this state,” he said.

How will this affect Arizona’s DUI laws?

The pair were largely split on how the legalization of marijuana would affect Arizona’s harsh DUI traffic laws.

Holyoaks said there would be little change, in that Arizona already has a method for handling people suspected of driving while high.

“If they are under the influence of marijuana – meaning they have active THC (the principal psychoactive substance in marijuana) in their system – it’s treated like a DUID, just like we do today as it should,” he said.

Montgomery said the proposition handcuffs law enforcement when it comes to making a DUI arrest.

“It (Prop. 205) is breathtaking in scope by eliminating an entire class of evidence for law enforcement to use to prove impairment and the initiative itself just addresses metabolites,” he said.

“It doesn’t distinguish between inactive and active metabolites.”

After a person uses marijuana, metabolites remain in their system. These can linger for a long time in an inactive (read: not impairing) form, but still led to some being charged with a DUI days or weeks after smoking. This led to a court battle.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled two years ago that a person can only be charged with a DUI if he or she tests positive for an active metabolite.

Montgomery said Prop. 205 prohibits the state from prosecuting a person for an action taken while they’re under the influence of marijuana, but it does not differentiate between active and inactive metabolites.

He also said the measure blocks police from basing a DUI case solely on a blood test, which could be an issue should a driver be unconscious or otherwise unable to answer questions.

What effects will Prop. 205 have on Arizona families?

One of the main arguing points concerning the measure is the possible effect it could have on families.

Montgomery said the largest danger legalized marijuana could pose to families is in the form of edibles, or food that incorporates either the drug itself or THC.

He said certain types of edibles look similar to the brightly-colored packaging of common candy and food and may be attractive to kids.

“What we need to keep in mind is that, in Colorado, they were able to ban certain types of edibles that were being marketed to children,” he said, adding that because Prop. 205 would be voter-protected, the state Legislature would be unable to make changes.

Montgomery said Colorado is working on 80 pieces of legislation designed to improve its marijuana laws, some of which are aimed at keeping children away from the drug.

Holyoak argued that marijuana use has not increased among Colorado teenagers, despite the state legalizing the drug. He also said that parents who assume their children will only be exposed to the drug if Prop. 205 passes are naive.

“Your children are going to be exposed to marijuana whether it’s legal or not,” he said, adding that parents should have an honest conversation with their children at some point about the drug.

He also said legalizing the drug would put its sale into the hands of regulated businesses, not “criminal drug cartels and dealers who have an incentive to sell to those children.”

Will Prop. 205 help or harm law enforcement?

As previously mentioned, Montgomery said Prop. 205 would actually cause more difficulties for law enforcement to get a DUI conviction should the measure pass.

He also said the idea that legalized marijuana would allow police to pursue bigger fish is more of a rumor.

“Unless you’re walking down the street waving your marijuana in the air, police officers don’t know you have it,” he said.

Montgomery also said the measure would not help in reducing the number of prisoners in the state or the amount of money needed to house them.

“There are 220 people out of 42,300 in Arizona’s prisons right now related to possession of marijuana,” he said. “It’s one-half of of 1 percent. You’re not going to save any money by saying, ‘OK, all you folks. You can leave now.’”

Holyoak said the DEA has said legalized marijuana helps police and that arrests for simple marijuana possession in Colorado are down nearly 90 percent.

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Burning debate: How would legalizing marijuana affect Arizona?