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Once again, a battle is brewing in Arizona over the legalization of marijuana. A recently-filed lawsuit seeks to halt the adult-use initiative on the ballot this November. The campaign against it has embraced fictitious information, fear tactics, and the like. Led by Smart and Safe Arizona and supported by numerous local public officials and politicians, it will stop at nothing to prevent a legitimate conversation about the facts surrounding adult-use marijuana in the United States.   

This narrative is not uncommon. Especially in Arizona, where the very same effort caused the 2016 ballot measure to fail. And while this most recent attempt was defeated, there’s a lesson to be learned. 

My history in crafting marijuana legislation and corresponding regulations covers more than a decade. As a cannabis policy professor at the University of Denver for over six years, I was afforded numerous opportunities to work with governments across the country and around the world. I’ve participated in countless seminars and events debating the pros and cons of marijuana legalization.  

One that especially stood out was in Phoenix in the fall of 2016. At the time, Arizona Proposition 205, an initiative to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, was on the ballot. I was invited by the Phoenix Business Journal to present at a panel discussing both sides of the issue and the effects on business in Arizona. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Small Business Association and held at the magnificent Phoenix Art Museum. 

As I prepared, I learned that the opposition narrative was replete with stories about how the introduction of adult-use marijuana would leave businesses with a pool of “stoned” candidates, ruinous to small and medium-sized companies. There were also concerns that workplace safety and efficiency would be severely impacted. The narrative was filled with alleged stories about the land of zombies in Denver following adult-use legalization.  

The opposition campaign even hired former Governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, and former Mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb, to participate in an advertising campaign stating that the situation in Colorado was “horrible.”  

The Phoenix Business Journal panel was heavily slanted against marijuana legalization and Jo Maguire (Jo McGuire, Inc.) was brought in from Colorado to talk about the adverse impact legalized cannabis was having on the state’s employers. I walked into a buzz-saw of lies and misinformation —set up like a bowling pin.

At the same time, Colorado’s economy was consistently ranked among the top in the nation and experiencing a tremendous economic boom – in part due to the new cannabis economy. Not to mention that troves of people were flocking to Colorado as both marijuana tourists and as transplants, further fostering the state’s economy. Reports from state agencies documented the fact that—despite legalization—cannabis use had not increased use among teens and various other metrics demonstrated very little, if any, adverse impact from cannabis legalization.  

With a student of mine, I explored the impact of legalization on Colorado as a case study in a 2016 University of Kentucky law review article entitled “Sprung From Night Into The Sun: An Examination Of Colorado’s Marijuana Regulatory Framework Since Legalization.” 

We went to great lengths to document the facts about adult-use legalization in Colorado and the associated effect on jobs, increased real estate investment, economic growth, decreasing unemployment, no significant increase in teen marijuana use, and much more. Despite having the data on our side, the same old narrative was spun again – don’t legalize based on fear and falsehoods. 

Now, as an attorney and academic, I’m saddled with the foundational requirement that evidence and objective facts are required to support a position, none of which seemed to bind the anti-legalization advocates. They were able to co-opt former Colorado politicians to misrepresent facts in the above-referenced ad campaign. The 2016 anti-legalization campaign was funded in part by opioid manufacturer Insys Therapeutics, which provided hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

Incidentally, in January 2020, John Kapoor, the founder of Insys Therapeutics, was sentenced to 66 months in prison for his role in a bribery and fraud scheme related to the U.S. opioid crisis. Draw any conclusions you wish about that one.   

Ultimately, Proposition 205 failed with 48.7% of the vote. The campaign to defeat it had raised more than $6 million. Now here we are again, four years later, and the anti-cannabis advocates are still filing suits to prevent the adult-use initiative from reaching voters in November.  

Again, their narrative goes to public safety and workplace issues. While the lawsuit was decided swiftly against Smart and Safe Arizona last week by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge James Smith, the cannabis stigma battle wages on. Despite all the facts, and the quantitative and qualitative data indicating the multifaceted benefits of legalization, pushback remains strong.   

On a brighter note, the negative public perception of cannabis is eroding with bipartisan numbers showing the vast majority of Americans favoring legalization of some sort. The Arizona ballot measure itself has withstood legal scrutiny and the possibility it will pass grows greater and greater. That’s terrific news for the Arizona economy because its medical marijuana businesses are already robust, well-run, and profitable.   

This time, facts prevailed and with the backdrop of economic downturn spurred by a global pandemic, we can thank our lucky stars. I approach this issue not with a “dog in the hunt” mentality or a bias  — let Arizonans vote as they wish — but with a keen interest in having elections decided on facts and evidence. 

Is this an idealistic position that no longer exists in American politics? Did it ever? One thing is certain: Arizona stands to lose a lot of money if all those dollars are channeled into the illicit market — largely supplied from the west, by California grass.

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