Tim Steller: Legalize pot? Maybe it's time for a vote

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: Legalize pot? Maybe it's time for a voteTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The first months of Arizona's experiment with medical marijuana suggest this system may not be a long-term answer to the marijuana question.

In the long run - hopefully, not too long - we'll need to choose legalization or prohibition.

Right now, some are trying to take us back to prohibition. State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, took a look at who's getting medical marijuana cards - largely young men complaining of chronic pain - and concluded the law is being abused. Now he's trying to persuade the Legislature to ask voters to overturn the law we approved in 2010.

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor supports Kavanagh's effort to resume all-out prohibition - not surprising for an officer who came of age in the war on drugs. However, the chief's second-favorite option may surprise: legalization of marijuana for personal use by adults.

"I would prefer that society just outright decide whether they want to make it legal or not so that we know what we have to do in regards to this substance," Villaseñor said. "To me, this is a charade."

For some, the "charade" has become dangerous. In March last year, gunmen burst into a house on the northeast side and robbed the residents, who were growing medical marijuana legally for several patients. A trend had begun.

As of Jan. 2 this year, when one of these robberies occurred at a home near East Glenn Street and North Columbus Avenue, they were happening at a rate of twice a week, said Sgt. Chris Widmer of the Tucson Police Department. Typically, the victims have been growers with medical marijuana cards, who in some cases are growing more plants than the 12 allowed by state law.

Then there is the flip side of the problem - medical marijuana cardholders who think the police remain too gung-ho to root out pot smokers despite the law. Paula Huff, a medical marijuana cardholder who lives near North Country Club and East Prince roads, told me via email how, "On January 10, a SWAT team and a helicopter were deployed in my honor."

Huff says she was growing 11 plants, of which six were flowering. Prosecutors say she had two pounds of marijuana, and they brought three felony charges against her - for marijuana production, possession of paraphernalia, and possession of a gun in a drug crime.

The case appears to ride on whether Huff was adhering to our medical-marijuana law, and such specifics as the weight of the pot. The way investigators came up with that two-pound measurement, Huff says, was by tearing out the plants and weighing even unusable leaves and other matter.

"The police and prosecutors have shown they just want to ignore the law," said Jon Gettels, a Tucsonan who is president of AZ4NORML, the state branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The question of whether cardholders are growing marijuana legally should diminish now that dispensaries are open in Tucson. Medical marijuana cardholders' cards expire annually, and so will the permission for cardholders to grow marijuana if they live within 25 miles of a dispensary.

Kavanagh's proposal would end all confusion another way - by terminating the medical marijuana law altogether through a ballot proposition.

"The people were led to believe it was a legitimate medical treatment and it would be a legitimate medical program," he said.

He thinks the fact that 47 percent of cardholders are under 40 is a sign the system is being exploited. So is the fact that a relative few doctors are signing off on most of the cards.

Even Gettels of AZ4NORML acknowledges that "there are people who are going to game the system." But he says that isn't a reason to dismantle it.

Three Tucson-area legislators I interviewed agree heartedly, and they sounded open to considering going further, toward legalization.

Both Ethan Orr, a Foothills Republican, and Rep. Andrea Dalessandro, a Sahuarita Democrat, said they met recently with dispensary operators, and they believe the medical marijuana system can work. Neither of the freshman representatives was willing to endorse legalizing marijuana for personal use yet.

"My job at this point is to manage the framework that we have," Orr said, noting that he'd listen to legalization arguments "if the voters want to take us there."

Veteran Tucson legislator Bruce Wheeler, a Democrat, was not so reticent about legalizing.

"I would support such an initiative," Wheeler told me. "I think it's only a matter of time that it will happen."

Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved initiatives in November that legalize possession and use of marijuana by adults over age 21. Some are considering sending a similar initiative to Arizona voters in 2016, Gettels said.

I say, let's clear up the confusion and do it sooner.

And it's not just I who thinks a straight-up vote might be the best option. Kavanagh's willing, too: "If you want to legalize it, then be frank with the voters and say we want to legalize for recreational use."

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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