Event Recap: 3 key questions in Arizona’s debate over legalizing recreational marijuana

October 3, 2016

This article originally appeared in the Arizona Republic, reported by Rebekah L. Sanders:

Arizona voters will decide this November whether to legalize recreational marijuana.

A discussion Thursday among representatives from both sides and a Colorado expert touched on the most potent arguments in the debate over Proposition 205.

The event featured Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery in opposition; J.P. Holyoak, chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, in support; and Ashley Kilroy, executive director of marijuana policy for the Denver Mayor’s Office. It was sponsored by Valley Leadership, the Congressman Ed Pastor, Center for Politics and Public Service at Arizona State University and The Arizona Republic.

These are three highlights:

Youth usage hasn’t spiked in Colorado

In the two years since Colorado started selling recreational marijuana, the perception of risk from marijuana among 12- to 17-year-olds “has really decreased greatly,” Kilroy said.

But she added that “clear and convincing” data has shown teenage use has not increased, despite advertising and the possibility of underage purchases with fake IDs.

“We’re surprised by that,” she said.

Marijuana-legalization foes cite studies that indicate youth usage has increased.

Would DUIs be more difficult to prosecute?

Montgomery and Holyoak disagreed about whether people driving while intoxicated will be charged.

Proposition 205 says that, if passed, marijuana would be treated like alcohol, so that “driving while impaired by marijuana remains illegal.”

But it also says that the state could not punish someone “for an action taken while under the influence of marijuana … solely because of the presence of metabolites or components of marijuana in the person’s body or in the urine, blood, saliva, hair or other tissue or fluid of the person’s body.”

Montgomery says the second passage ties the hands of law enforcement.

“If all I have is what is in their blood today,” for instance if the driver is unconscious, won’t talk to police or refuses a field sobriety test, “if that’s alcohol, I can successfully prosecute,” Montgomery said. “If that’s marijuana, I can’t if this were to pass.”

Holyoak said the language is clear that driving under the influence of marijuana will remain illegal.

“We don’t support driving under the influence of any substance whether it’s over the counter, legal or illegal,” he said. “If you’re driving impaired, you should be charged with that. This allows for that. It says it explicitly.”

Would legalization get rid of the black market?

Colorado continues to arrest illegal marijuana traffickers, but with legal sales of recreational and medical marijuana in Colorado rising to nearly $1 billion in 2015, “The idea that drug cartels are thriving just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Holyoak said.

“We’re going from a black market to a white market. This occurred with the end of alcohol prohibition as well — the Al Capones of the world did not go away on Day 1,” he said.

But Montgomery said that in the last few months law-enforcement officers have busted illegal grow operations in Colorado run by foreigners from Vietnam, Laos and other countries.

With Arizona on the U.S. border with Mexico, he said, “We’re an even more enticing target to try to integrate (the state) into an illegal grow market.”

It does appear illegal trafficking in Colorado has increased, Kilroy said, though overall crime has remained steady.Get the Politics Main newsletter in your inbox.

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It also has become more difficult for police officers to  distinguish between legal and illegal grow operations, she said.

“It used to be, years ago, if they saw a warehouse and they smelled marijuana, they knew they could get a warrant and go in because it was illegal,” Kilroy said. “Now, because it could be legal if (the operation has) a license, it’s difficult for the officers to know.”

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