The New Charge to Legalize Cannabis in Arizona

A group of some of the largest cannabis companies in the country are leading a push to bring adult use cannabis to the Copper State. The new campaign has more than $700,000 so far, with almost all of it coming from Harvest Health & Recreation, Curaleaf, and MedMen.

The campaign started with the Arizona Dispensary Association, which represents 85 of the state’s 118 dispensaries. The group views legal adult use cannabis as a “primary objective” and had been convening an informal subcommittee to discuss the issue, said Steve White, president of the association. (White is also CEO of Harvest Health & Recreation, an Arizona-based cannabis company that is also one of the highest-valued in North America.)

The group in March hired Stacy Pearson, a consultant with the firm Strategies 360, to help lead the charge. The result: Smart and Safe Arizona, a campaign committee dedicated to legalizing adult-use cannabis statewide in 2020. The group plans to start gathering signatures this month.

Arizona allows for ballot initiatives, meaning voters and organizations can make changes to state law. It was a ballot initiative that first brought medical cannabis to Arizona in 2010, but in 2016, residents voted down another initiative—Proposition 205—to legalize adult use cannabis. (It was the only one of nine cannabis-related ballot initiatives that year to be defeated.)

Pearson says cannabis advocates have learned from past mistakes, particularly when it comes to reaching out to opponents. In this new campaign, “we started with our most vocal critics,” she told Cannabis Wire. “I think they trust we’re trying to resolve the problems they raised.”

In 2016, law-enforcement organizations and business groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry came out against legalization, but Pearson says she thinks that opposition was more about misunderstandings than actual policy disagreements. The chamber’s “job creation” agenda, for example, “should align with an adult-use initiative,” she said. And while law-enforcement groups have expressed concern about cannabis DUIs, Pearson was quick to note that Smart and Safe also opposes cannabis-impaired driving.

Tim Sultan, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association, said in an email that Pearson had done a “world-class job” of “learning from the failure of Prop 205 in 2016.” She was “listening to stakeholders,” he said, adding that this year’s campaign “is supported by a wide tent.”

It remains unclear, though, who precisely will be under that tent. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry did not to respond to requests for comment on the initiative, and the Arizona Police Association has not yet taken a position on it. Joe Clure, executive director of the association, said legalizing adult use cannabis is “not likely to be one of our highest priorities.”

Pearson has also been conducting polls of likely Arizona voters to determine where locals stand on cannabis issues. While she wouldn’t share her polling, she says it shines light on the particulars of how Arizonans feel about cannabis. For example, according to Pearson, most Arizonans believe there should be a cap on the number of adult use licenses.

With polling and outreach still ongoing, the details of Smart and Safe’s proposal are still to be determined. The campaign is still in a “preliminary phase,” focused on “stakeholder outreach” and “donor development,” according to its barebones website.

First- and second-quarter campaign finance reports filed with the Arizona Secretary of State show: $300,000 from Harvest, the company run by Arizona Dispensary Association president White; $300,000 from Curaleaf, a Massachusetts-based company with locations across the US; and $100,000 from MedMen, a widely recognized cannabis brand in the US, with locations from New York to California.

White, the Harvest CEO, said it was “really exciting” to see cannabis companies working together to campaign for recreational cannabis. But while a February poll by the firm OH Predictive Insights showed a majority of Arizonan likely voters support their cause, reform isn’t guaranteed. Ballot initiatives (not lawmakers) have delivered cannabis reforms to Arizona in the past, and White says the state’s medical-cannabis industry is “consistently under attack by the Legislature.” When the Arizona Dispensary Association isn’t incubating its own bills, he says, it spends “a lot of time defending against bad ones.”

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