Dennis Bohlke, the 59-year-old computer programmer who is leading the effort, said the Safer Arizona initiative is modeled after Colorado’s newly enacted law, which taxes and regulates marijuana.
“The intent of the initiative is to legalize marijuana in Arizona and to treat it as we treat alcohol,” said Bohlke.
The effort would amend the state Constitution to allow people 18 and older “to consume or possess limited amounts” of marijuana. The initiative would allow state officials to license grow facilities, marijuana stores and other facilities.
The initiative needs 259,213 valid signatures by July 3, 2014, to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.
Bohlke said he has no major financial backing to fund signature gathering. He said he has spoken with Republican, “tea party” and Democratic lawmakers about his effort and that while they would not support him, they “were very receptive” of his effort.
Bohlke acknowledged it will be challenging to gather the signatures necessary to place the initiative on the ballot without major funding.
In addition, law enforcement and prosecutors would likely mount a strong opposition campaign.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has made the fight against medical marijuana a signature issue, said any effort to legalize pot “even through the initiative process, would run afoul of the same supremacy clause issues that Arizona’s medical-marijuana program faces.”
But Karen O’Keefe of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., a national legalization-advocacy group, said the proposed initiative “makes sure the state wouldn’t waste any more money arresting people for using a substance that’s objectively safer than alcohol and tobacco.
“It would also allow the state to regulate and control the industry and to generate substantial revenue” that would benefit Arizona residents “instead of drug dealers,” she said.
Bohlke said he is motivated by his pot-related brushes with the law. He was arrested twice in Scottsdale in 2010 on drug-related charges. Bohlke was stopped in February 2010 on suspicion of crossing the white line with his car, according to police records, and when the officer walked up to the vehicle he claimed he could smell marijuana. A search of the car turned up a small amount of marijuana stored in a mint box and a package of rolling papers, according to police. The case was dismissed last year after Bohlke’s defense raised questions about when the arresting officer gave Bohlke his Miranda warning.
“That is part of the motivation for doing this,” said Bohlke, who said he was stopped and searched by police without cause.
Bohlke was arrested again in July 2010 after a Scottsdale police officer said he failed to stop at a red light and initiated a DUI investigation, according to police records. Lab test results showed the presence of the metabolite associated with marijuana and Bohlke was convicted of being impaired to the slightest degree and driving under the influence of drugs, according to court records. The conviction is on appeal.
“It’s a very bad thing for people to get arrested for marijuana — especially for young people going to college and going to school,” he said. “It has a very bad impact on their life and I just think it’s time that we do something about it.”
Arizona voters approved the use of medicinal marijuana in 2010 for conditions such as chronic pain and cancer. More than 35,000 Arizonans participate in the program, which is overseen by the Department of Health Services.
Colorado and Washington are the only states to have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Lawmakers in 10 states have introduced bills to legalize marijuana for recreational use. All of those efforts have failed, O’Keefe said.
An April Pew Research Center poll found that for the first time since the 1960s, most Americans favor legalizing marijuana. The national survey found that 52 percent say marijuana should be made legal while 45 percent say it should not. Pew reported that support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010.
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