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The Current State of Cannabis Legalization: Arizona- The Journey to Adult Use Legalization

In 2020, Arizona became a recreational/adult use cannabis-marijuana state. The journey to legalization in Arizona was a long one, and continues to see difficulties in arrests even with legalization. I suppose this is because legalization changes law, not stigma, so the Arizona cannabis industry and culture continue the journey for the plant's and the people’s true freedom.

Arizona has had some wins, there are still changes that need to be made. Arizona and the nation can benefit from cannabis marijuana to help battle the nation's active pandemics- Covid and opioid deaths/overdoses. 

Arizona Cannabis Legalization Timeline 

The cannabis legalization timeline in Arizona goes a little something like this:

1996: 65% of Arizona voters approved Proposition 200 (the 'Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act'), a drug policy reform initiative that contained a provision allowing physicians to prescribe cannabis.

1998: The medical use provision was then repealed by state legislators a few months later, but the change was rejected by voters in a veto referendum (Proposition 300). The medical use provision was ineffective due to language that created significant conflict with federal law because of the word 'prescribe' instead of 'recommend'.

2002: Proposition 203, a medical cannabis initiative that also sought to decriminalize recreational use, failed with 42.7% of the vote.

2010: despite opposition from Governor Jan Brewer, Attorney General Terry Goddard, all of the state's sheriffs and county prosecutors, and many other state politicians, Proposition 203 was approved with 50.1% of the vote. Proposition 203 was an initiative seeking to legalize the medical use of cannabis. The initiative allowed patients with a doctor's recommendation to possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for treatment of certain qualifying conditions.

2011: Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne filed a lawsuit in federal court questioning some of the initiative's provisions. The lawsuit sought a ruling on whether state employees involved in implementing certain provisions were subject to federal prosecution.

2012: The lawsuit was dismissed in January 2012; a federal judge found that the issue was not ripe as there was no indication that the federal government would prosecute Arizona officials for implementing the act. The first licensed dispensary opened to the public on December 6, 2012.

2016: Proposition 205, an initiative to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, failed with 48.7% of the vote. The initiative would have allowed adults to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.

2020: The Arizona Dispensaries Association filed a ballot initiative application on September 26, 2019, for the 'Smart and Safe Act. The Smart and Safe Arizona campaign ultimately submitted more than 420,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's Office. On August 11, 2020, the Secretary of State announced that the initiative had qualified for the November ballot as Proposition 207.Recreational use of cannabis was legalized through the passage of Proposition 207 on November 3, 2020. 

The Smart and Safe Act legalized the adult recreational use of marijuana, specifically by allowing adults in Arizona to possess up to 1 ounce (28 g) of marijuana (with no more than 5 grams being marijuana concentrate), and by allowing each adult to have up to 6 marijuana plants at their home (with up to 12 marijuana plants in households with two or more adult members).

The Smart and Safe Act passed with 60% of the vote on November 3, 2020. Possession and cultivation of cannabis became legal on November 30, 2020, when the results of the election were certified. State-licensed sales of recreational cannabis began on January 22, 2021, making Arizona the fastest state to begin retail sales after recreational legalization was approved in U.S. history.

Cannabis Arrests and Convictions in Arizona

Pre cannabis legalization in Arizona, cannabis arrests looked a little something like this: Arizona is a little like the south of the west. In that state, cannabis has, and can still get someone arrested because stigma’s reign supreme. Here’s what I mean:

  • Arizona has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the United States.
  • 89% of the 754,224 Americans arrested were charged with possession only.
  • The remaining 93,640 individuals were charged with “sale/manufacture,” a category that includes all cultivation offenses; even those where the marijuana was being grown for personal or medical use.
  • 21.8% of those in prison in 2016 were serving time for a drug related crime as their most serious charge- that is more than any other crime.
  • With the estimated 2015 per diem of $64.93 a day to house a person in prison, Arizona is spending $588,655 per day to house people whose worst crime is a drug offense.
  • Blacks and Latino’s are convicted at a higher rate. 
  • Data shows that the number of arrests for drug sales or manufacturing fluctuated from 2013 to 2017, but declined overall .13%,  specifically, arrests for the sale or manufacture of drugs was 14.3% lower in 2017 than in 2013. 

In Closing 

It appears that since legalization, cannabis arrests have lowered in some areas as seen above, but, Black people are still impacted at a high rate. Research shows that people of color go to prison at a higher rate for possession of drugs, with Black people having the highest rate in every area. And though arrests for sales/manufacturing declined, the arrests for possession of drugs has increased. 

Arrests for drug possession increased by 17.6% from 2013 to 2017;  cannabis- marijuana possession saw a 1.6% increase in the number of arrests. Like the other states, cannabis-marijuana isn’t the biggest issue, but one so heavily focused on. 

In the research, in the infographics, in most statistics: Meth/Amp is the biggest issue. In all categories, methamphetamine is the highest percentage. And of the numbers/figures above, one that wasn’t covered is the issue of opioid overdose deaths in Arizona. Phoenix - CBS 5 states:

“Preliminary estimates show the number of opioid overdose deaths in Arizona rose by nearly 70% from 2019 to 2020. That is despite the pandemic and its related lockdowns”. The 2020 DEA National Drug Threat Assessment concludes: 'Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids will likely continue to contribute to high numbers of drug overdose deaths in the United States in the near term.'

Because of federal legalization, marijuana is still considered a schedule 1 “drug”. Studies are showing that marijuana can prevent opioid addiction. In an article published on the Recovery Village, it states:

“Prescribed marijuana can help prevent an opioid addiction from developing in the first place. Many addicts begin their addiction with a prescription for painkillers, and medical marijuana might be a suitable and safer substitute.”

About Veronica Castillo

Veronica Castillo is a writer from Miami, with a pre-Cannabis background in insurance and human resources. She advocates, writes about, and educates on the topic of cannabis and hemp for overall life. Currently, she is a resident of the road exploring all thing’s cannabis and hemp in the United States, with plans to travel abroad in exploration of cannabis and hemp culture in other countries.


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