PHOENIX — Medical marijuana would be legal in Arizona today if not for bad wording in a 1996 ballot measure passed by voters, and then an overbroad proposal that failed in 2002.
Now backers of a measure that goes before Arizona voters on Nov. 2 hope they've worked out all the kinks and that Arizonans will legalize marijuana for patients dealing with severe and persistent pain.
Thousands of patients face "a terrible choice" of suffering with a serious or even terminal illness or going to the criminal market for pot, said Andrew Myers, campaign manager for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project. More than 252,000 voter signatures were collected to put the measure on the ballot — nearly 100,000 more than required.
November will be the fourth time in 14 years Arizona voters will consider the issue.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana law in 1996 and 1998, but wording conflicted with federal law, blocking its enactment. Then in 2002, voters rejected a sweeping initiative that would have decriminalized possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana for any user and required state police to hand out the drug to seriously ill people.
But this year's law applies only to patients with diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, glaucoma, and Crohn's disease, among others, and any other "chronic or debilitating" diseases that cause continuous and severe pain, severe nausea, or seizures.
The patients must get a recommendation from their doctor and register with the Arizona Department of Health Services. They would be allowed to get 2½ ounces of marijuana every two weeks, or if they're properly authorized, grow 12 marijuana plants in an enclosed, locked area.
The law also allows for marijuana dispensaries, which would be required to register with the health department after filing an application and paying a fee. No more than 124 dispensaries would be allowed.
"There were major drafting errors in the past, but the silver lining is we had 14 years to learn from other states' mistakes and craft a complete law," Myers said.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and 13 other states and Washington, D.C., have since followed suit.
Carolyn Short, chairwoman of Keep AZ Drug Free, said her group believes the proposed law will increase crime around dispensary locations, lead to more people driving while impaired and eventually lead to legalized pot for everyone.
"This looks a lot more like drug trafficking than medicine," she said.
She said the major financial backer of the new measure, the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, makes no bones about its ultimate goal: national legalization of marijuana for everyone.
"They're trying to persuade voters to falsely believe that this is about sick people," she said. "This initiative is a backdoor route to legalization."
Myers acknowledged the Marijuana Policy Project's aims, but said "there's absolutely nothing about this law that makes it easier to legalize marijuana."
As for the possibility of increased crime and impaired drivers, he said the same is true for prescription drugs that he described as more psychoactive and addictive than marijuana.
Heather Torgerson, a 29-year-old Scottsdale saleswoman who volunteers for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, said she was opposed to medical marijuana as a college student before her battle with brain cancer began in 2004.
She said she was given six months to live in April 2007 and nearly had to quit her chemotherapy treatments because she had lost so much weight. She couldn't eat because of extreme nausea, she said, and prescription medications weren't working for her.
So, she tried marijuana, illegally.
She said it curbed her nausea, and she was able to eat, gain weight, and continue chemotherapy. Now she's cancer-free but still smokes marijuana from a pipe about once a month after maintenance chemotherapy treatments.
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"I obviously feel very strongly about wanting this to get passed," she said. "I think it's ridiculous that I could be criminalized for using something that helped me live and helped me beat cancer. To go to jail for that doesn't seem fair at all."
Fred Solop, a pollster and political science professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said the legislation's focus on seriously ill patients likely will endear it to Arizona voters.
"We have this new national environment where we not only have other states passing these laws but practicing the distribution of medical marijuana," he said. "And now here it comes around in Arizona again. I think people will be favorably disposed to it and will seriously consider voting for it."