First-term Republican lawmaker Ethan Orr said Monday if he is returned to the state House, he plans on introducing legislation next year legalizing the sale of marijuana to adults.
Orr, who is facing a re-election challenge from Democrats Randy Friese and Victoria Steele, said he believes legalization is inevitable, given the changing national attitude, and that taxing marijuana sales could add $250 million to the state treasury.
Beyond the criticism from Steele and Friese, Orr concedes he is getting significant pushback from his own party, to the point he isn’t sure his plan will even get a hearing.
But Orr noted there is growing support for the concept, as well as a well-organized group that wants to put the question on a statewide referendum.
It could take two years, Orr admits, to convince enough of his colleagues that legalization is in the best interests of the state. But he said his bottom line is the bottom line of the state, which faces an estimated billion-dollar revenue shortfall next year.
“The question is, ‘Are we going to fund the state or the cartels?’” he said. “Part of leadership is having the difficult conversation.”
Pima County Republican Party Chair Carolyn Cox strongly opposed, noting Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has publicly lamented the decision to legalize pot in his state.
“It is a dumb idea,” Cox said.
State Republican Party head Robert Graham declined to comment on Orr’s proposal.
Legislative District 9 opponents Friese and Steele find his motives suspicious, coming in the final weeks before the general election.
Friese, a trauma surgeon, argues Orr isn’t being consistent, noting Orr didn't sign on as a sponsor of two other House bills: one that sought to decriminalize possession for an ounce or less of marijuana and another reducing criminal penalties for possession of a small, personal amount. Both bills died in committee, and were never heard.
But Friese pointed out that Orr did support a bill in committee in 2013 that required confiscated medical marijuana to be destroyed.
“The timing is obvious; this is an election cycle,” Friese said.
Friese said he supports legalization, combined with safeguards to keep marijuana out of the hands of minors and programs to treat addiction.
He also wants voters to decide on the issue, not the Legislature, assuring the measure cannot be easily negated.
Steele, who currently holds the other LD 9 House seat, vows to fight Orr’s bill, noting legalization in Colorado has filled state coffers, but has harmed children in the state.
The former substance-abuse counselor said the number of teens using marijuana in Colorado is 39 percent higher than the national average.
“I would argue that marijuana is not as dangerous as some of the things, like alcohol, that we currently permit in our society,” Orr countered.
Orr said he has never used marijuana.
He dismisses his critics of the timing of his proposal, saying he is confident about his re-election, and proposing legalization wasn’t necessary to get another term.
Orr argues Friese hasn’t done his homework, noting he helped kill the 2013 bill. Orr says Friese is ignoring other bills he has sponsored.
Last session, Orr sponsored legislation designed to allow the use of state dollars, obtained from medical marijuana users and dispensaries, to study the effects of the drug. That measure was approved by the House, but killed in the Senate.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall is also not supportive of Orr’s proposal.
“I don’t think we should have it either way,” LaWall said. “We don’t need another highly addictive substance available to adults or adolescents.”
LaWall acknowledged what Orr is proposing would be only for adults. But she said its greater availability will make it more accessible to teens.
“Research shows it has a devastating and damaging impact on developing brains and can lead to lifelong addiction,” she said. “Among other risks, marijuana impairs thinking, leads to poor educational outcomes and lowered IQ, and increases a teen’s likelihood of dropping out of school.”
The Marijuana Policy Project, which got voters in 2010 to approve a medical marijuana law, is going ahead with a planned legalization initiative in 2016, regardless of Orr’s proposal.
Chris Lindsey, the group’s legislative analyst, said Orr’s proposal is “not surprising” given what he said has been the success of legalization in Colorado.
But, he said, “simply introducing a bill is far from a guarantee of getting a hearing, much less the measure making its way onto the books.”