Arizona Activists Continue Efforts to Qualify Cannabis Ballot Initiative: Legalization Watch

Arizona Activists Continue Efforts to Qualify Cannabis Ballot Initiative: Legalization Watch

Smart and Safe Arizona has asked the state’s Supreme Court to allow the campaign to gather signatures electronically due to COVID-19, but is confident that it can get the issue before voters regardless of the outcome.

May 7, 2020

Smart and Safe Arizona has already collected more than the minimum number of signatures required to qualify its adult-use cannabis legalization measure for the state’s 2020 ballot, but the campaign is continuing its efforts in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure it has enough valid signatures to get the issue before voters this fall.

The statutory measure would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, as well as grow up to six plants at home for personal use.

The Arizona Department of Health, which already regulates the state’s medical cannabis program, would oversee the adult-use industry, which would launch by June 1, 2021, under the initiative. The department would grant vertically integrated licenses to businesses to cultivate, process and sell adult-use cannabis, as well as issue licenses to adult-use testing facilities.

Existing medical cannabis dispensaries would be considered “early applicants,” as would applicants seeking to locate their business in a county with fewer than two existing medical cannabis dispensaries. Medical dispensaries ultimately awarded adult-use licenses would then have to co-locate medical and adult-use sales in one storefront.

The initiative levies a 5.6% sales tax and a 16% excise tax on adult-use cannabis to fund state agencies for expenses related to implementing the program, and any remaining funds would be divided among community college districts, police and fire departments, the Highway User Fund and a newly created Justice Investment Fund, which would support grants and programs related to public health, expungement, nonprofit services and social equity efforts.

The measure includes provisions to expunge the criminal records of those who were previously convicted of low-level cannabis charges, and designates 26 business licenses for qualified social equity applicants from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

While Safe and Smart Arizona has collected more than 300,000 signatures—well above the roughly 238,000 signatures needed to qualify the measure for this year’s ballot—the campaign asked the Arizona Supreme Court last month to allow for the electronic collection of signatures amid the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure it has enough valid signatures by its July 2 deadline.

“With or without relief, we’re confident that Smart and Safe will get on the ballot,” campaign organizer Stacy Pearson told Cannabis Business Times. “We are ensuring that we have enough ballot signatures by continuing to collect more. It’s just additional insurance, should any of the signatures get challenged.”

Safe and Smart Arizona is one of four ballot initiative campaigns in the state that filed the petition asking the Supreme Court to allow the campaigns to gather electronic signatures via E-Qual, an online collection platform that is currently available for federal, statewide and legislative candidates, but not for ballot initiatives.

“What we were hoping for is relief from the court that allowed access to an electronic signature system that legislators already use for themselves, so that they don’t physically have to go out and collect signatures anymore,” Pearson said. “In the meantime, we have not gone dark awaiting the outcome of the court case.”

Smart and Safe is continuing to collect signatures while maintaining appropriate social distancing, she said, by dropping petitions off at front doors and allowing residents to sign them with their own pens. The campaign is also collecting signatures at some of the state’s dispensaries, which have remained operational during the pandemic as essential businesses.

“I’m not that worried about … what the court decides,” Moe Asnani, director of The Downtown & D2 Dispensaries and a member of the Arizona Dispensaries Association (ADA), which is backing Safe and Smart’s campaign, told Cannabis Business Times. “I definitely think that it will help a few other campaigns who are trying to collect signatures. … With Smart and Safe, we started collecting signatures Labor Day of last year, pretty early on, and … some of the other campaigns that didn’t start the signature gathering process [are] trying to catch up. We want to see other initiatives on the ballot—we don’t want to be the only one on there, so we support being able to collect signatures electronically.”

Arizona’s cannabis advocates have largely consolidated into the Smart and Safe campaign, Asnani added, and he is confident that the measure will qualify for this year’s ballot despite the challenges that COVID-19 has presented.

“Even today, I still see signatures being added for Smart and Safe at the dispensaries,” he said. “We still have signature gatherers—they’re wearing masks and PPE, but … they’re still there, collecting signatures at my [dispensary] locations. We support the gatherers, and I think regardless of whether electronic [collection] happens, we should still hit our target once the signatures are validated.”

Then, the fate of legalization this year will rest in the hands of voters.

Like many other states, Arizona is facing a budget deficit in the wake of the pandemic, and both Pearson and Asnani believe an adult-use cannabis program will help generate the revenue the state needs to overcome its economic woes.

“I think support continues to grow, particularly with this pandemic, when Arizona is going to be facing a pretty substantial budget shortfall,” Pearson said. “It makes sense to find a new source of revenue, and that very sincerely could be marijuana legalization. … The economic argument continues to get stronger as the pandemic continues.”

“2020 is the year that Arizona legalizes, and I think that the excise tax that we have built into this program … will probably help the state out,” Asnani added. “They need all the tax revenue they can get.”

From the beginning, Smart and Safe has argued that since cannabis already exists in the illicit market, the state would do well to place it in a taxed and regulated environment, Pearson said.

“We’re not advocating that people start to use marijuana who aren’t … already,” she said. “What we’re saying is, the product exists already, so do you want it in a taxed, licensed, regulated market, or not? That’s really what voters are deciding, whether this needs to be sold in a storefront or in a black market transaction."