Saying legislation is better than a voter initiative, the second-ranking Democrat in the state House wants to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Phoenix pointed out proponents of making marijuana legal for adults are gearing up to put the issue on the 2016 ballot, and he believes the voters, who approved medical marijuana use three years ago, may be ready to take the next step. But Gallego warned anything adopted by voters is pretty much cemented into place: The Arizona Constitution sharply limits legislative tinkering with anything approved at the ballot, even if they find major flaws.
So Gallego wants to have the issue debated through the legislative process, with the idea lawmakers are better suited to come up with a comprehensive plan — one without unforeseen problems — than outsiders circulating petitions. The head of the House Judiciary Committee, through which Gallego’s measure would have to pass, acknowledged attitudes about marijuana in Arizona are becoming more liberal. Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, conceded voters might even approve a legalization measure.
But Farnsworth said he’s still opposed to the idea. And he said just because it might be approved at the poll is no reason for him and others who don’t want marijuana legalized to vote to allow it. Gallego, who said he’s never tried marijuana, said one reason to legalize the drug is purely economic: the costs to the state of jailing people for marijuana possession. He acknowledged a 1996 voter-approved measure generally allows first- and second-time offenders to escape incarceration. But Gallego said prosecutors use the fact that someone had marijuana when arrested for something to boost their prison sentence.
He also said those with marijuana possession convictions face other problems, like becoming ineligible for federal Pell grants and federally backed student loans. But Gallego said what should concern legislators is the plan by the Marijuana Policy Project to put a legalization measure on the 2016 ballot that cannot be altered once approved.“For example, what does it mean to child custody laws, what does it mean to employment all, all kinds of things that could be forced down upon us,’’ he said.
Farnsworth, however, said that’s no reason for legislators to get out in front of the issue. “When we start making policy because we think it’s going to be rammed down our throats, that kind of is an indication of the way the system’s kind of broken,’’ he said. And Farnsworth said he will not let the threat of an initiative pressure him into supporting a policy with which he disagrees. While voters did narrowly approve marijuana for medical purposes in 2010, Farnsworth said that’s far different than letting any adult possess and use the drug for any reason.
“I think that when people passed medical marijuana they believed that marijuana for sick people who have cancer, who have pain, who legitimately would benefit from marijuana as a drug is no different than giving narcotics, giving pain killers, that are controlled substances to patients,’’ he said.
And even Farnsworth said even he sides with that viewpoint. He said marijuana is certainly no more dangerous — and perhaps less so — than many of the narcotics that doctors already are legally prescribing. Still, he conceded there is a real chance that a 2016 ballot measure would pass.
“I do think the attitude toward marijuana has become more liberal and more accepting,’’ Farnsworth said. “But I still think that people see it as a controlled substance for a reason.’’ The legislation Gallego is crafting would allow those at least 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to five plants. Details on how and where could be sold, and by whom, are still being worked out.
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