An initiative planned for the 2010 ballot would ask Arizona voters to legalize medical marijuana, setting up a California-style network of cannabis clubs and even allow some patients to grow their own drug supply.
It's the fourth time since 1996 that state voters have been asked to decriminalize marijuana as a medical treatment. Local supporters, backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project, have their sights set on the 2010 general election and plan to submit ballot language to the Secretary of State's Office as early as next week.
The initiative would allow individuals with illnesses ranging from cancer to HIV/AIDS or glaucoma to seek a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana, according to draft ballot language obtained by The Arizona Republic.
Eligible individuals would be able to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of the drug every 14 days from a series of non-profit outlets, known as dispensaries. Patients in rural areas of the state could cultivate a limited number of their own marijuana plants.
Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal guidelines, like heroin or LSD. But the initiative would shield from state prosecution the doctors who recommend marijuana for medical treatment, the dispensary workers who provide it and the patients who use it. Thirteen states already have legalized medical marijuana in some fashion, though only California has established a widespread network of dispensaries to distribute it.
Proponents of medical marijuana say it can relieve pain and suffering.
Supporters of the Arizona initiative say it would provide another treatment alternative to the desperately ill, sparing them and their family from having to brave the underground drug market and risk criminal prosecution.
"These people are facing a terrible choice," said Andrew Myers, campaign manager for the Arizona initiative. "It's either continue to suffer with debilitating effects or risk arrest and jail time."
Skeptics voice worry
Skeptics aren't so sure. They question the drug's medicinal benefits and wonder whether efforts to legalize it for the sick and dying are a prelude to decriminalization for everyone else in the future.
"Don't get blinded by the smokescreen," warned Rick Romley, a former Maricopa County attorney. "It's still a step toward legalization of marijuana. That's what it has been since Day 1."
Romley was in office in 1996 during the state's initial medical marijuana vote.
By a nearly 2-1 ratio, voters approved a ballot proposal that OK'd use of the drug for medical purposes, but lawmakers subsequently stripped the provision from the law.
In 1998, federal authorities threatened to revoke the license of physicians who prescribed the drug.
That same year, voters rejected a ballot attempt to require that the federal government or Congress OK the use of medical marijuana before it could be prescribed by a doctor.
In 2002, Arizona voters rejected an effort to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana and make the drug available free of charge to patients suffering from cancer and other diseases.
Medical-marijuana supporters think the timing is right to try once more. They believe they've solved the past licensing issue with their latest initiative, which requires that patients obtain a physician's "recommendation," rather than a prescription, to obtain the drug.
Additionally, new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently indicated that federal authorities will not pursue cases involving medical marijuana in states that allow the practice, a reversal of Bush administration policy.
Backers of the initiative need to gather at least 153,000 valid signatures to qualify for the 2010 ballot. Myers is confident his group can do that and is girding for a multimillion-dollar campaign.
A degree of mercy
The issue of medical marijuana is personal for Ellen Terry Friedman.
In early 1988, the Tempe woman's father, Harold, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 70. The disease had spread to his bones.
His condition deteriorated over the next 18 months. Toward the end, Harold was no longer undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. He was under hospice care and on morphine. But he still suffered.
So, in her father's last month or so of life, Friedman said, the oncologist suggested the family obtain marijuana to dull Harold's pain and help with his nausea. She won't say how the family got the drug, but it did.
"It was a shocking position to be put in, let's put it that way," she said. "Nobody should be put in that position."
The marijuana seemed to help, Friedman said. Her father regained a bit of appetite. He found a degree of mercy.
"It was a horrible, painful death, but it was eased somewhat," she said. "We wanted him to die with the least pain, and the medical marijuana was an integral part of that."
Romley sympathizes with those who suffer. But he worries that some patients or doctors would misuse the law, especially given a provision in the initiative that would allow patients to obtain the drug if they displayed symptoms such as severe pain or seizures. What constitutes severe pain would be a matter for a doctor's judgment.
State Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, has similar concerns. But he's conflicted on the issue of medical marijuana. Although he worries "this is just the gateway to legalizing marijuana," Paton also has seen the drug used with medical benefits.
Before dying of cancer a couple of years ago, a friend of Paton's used marijuana to ease the suffering.
"He smoked pot because he was too sick," said Paton, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He couldn't keep the (pain) pills down."
If marijuana is a legitimate medical treatment, Romley said, backers should seek its legalization through the health community and federal government, not at the ballot box.
"I just don't believe we decide what's good medicine at the ballot box," he said. "The vast bulk of the medical community has never pushed it to be a drug legalized for medicinal purposes."
Myers countered that federal drug laws continue to make medical research involving marijuana difficult.
And while he conceded that the national Marijuana Policy Project has broader aims with regard to the drug's legalization, he said the Arizona initiative is narrowly written with its intent solely on helping people fighting severe illness.
"There are 13 other states with medical-marijuana laws," Myers said. "None of those 13 has moved to total legalization."
April 18, 2009
The Arizona Republic