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Updated Mar 9, 2014 - 8:48 am

Could Arizona legalize marijuana? Two groups want issue on ballot

PHOENIX -- When Scott Cecil wound up facing a felony charge for possessing marijuana for his own use, he started to think the so-called war on drugs was targeting the wrong people.

"It really made me realize there are hundreds of thousands of people per year that are arrested for marijuana and other drugs," he said. "They haven't committed any violent crimes, they aren't selling drugs, they're just using drugs recreationally."

Cecil, a student at Mesa Community College and board member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, is part of a larger movement to legalize marijuana in Arizona. He and other activists with Safer Arizona, a grassroots marijuana advocacy group, are trying to collect enough signatures to put a legalization initiative on the November ballot.

Dennis Bohlke, treasurer for Safer Arizona, said Arizona would be a safer place if marijuana were legalized.

"We think it's safer than alcohol, and we find it outrageous that people are being jailed and being labeled as felons," he said.

But is Arizona, several years removed from narrowly approving medical marijuana, ready to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington by legalizing recreational use?

Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University, said there may be more support out there than many would assume.

"I've always said that Arizona is a lesson in contradictions," he said. "We know that some issues that are aligned ideologically in other parts of the country, like the environment, cut across some of those traditional ideological boundaries in Arizona. And I think depending on the framing, the marijuana issue cuts across those traditional cleavages as well."

He said changing views on legalization speak to a culture change nationally.

"Just like gay marriage - the issue of gay marriage is changing nationally - we're seeing changes in attitudes toward the legalization of marijuana," Solop said. "It's a national phenomenon, and it's coming here to Arizona."

A January poll by the Behavior Research Center found that 51 percent of Arizonans surveyed said the sale of marijuana should be legal, while 41 percent were against the idea.

That same month a national CNN/Opinion Research Poll found that 55 percent of those surveyed said marijuana should be legal while 44 percent were against it.

The notion of legalization reached the Arizona State Legislature this year, though two Democratic bills on the subject have gone nowhere.

HB 2474, introduced by Rep. Mark A. Cardenas, D-Phoenix, would make marijuana possession a petty offense. HB 2558, introduced by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Gallego said drug war has failed and that recreational use of marijuana is no different than drinking alcohol.

"If we really want to stop addiction and the drug cartels then we have to look at this and fight this in a different way," he said.

Gallego said marijuana will eventually be legalized, most likely through a ballot initiative.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said trying to follow Colorado and Washington's lead so soon wouldn't be smart.

"It's a reckless policy, and it's born either out of ignorance or indifference to the impact to the community and to our youth and public safety," he said.

Montgomery said claims that legalizing marijuana wouldn't harm the community are false.

"It's going to impact quality of life, health care, economic competitiveness and labor productivity in the long run," he said.

Tony Ryan, a retired Denver police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said he never had a problem with marijuana users in his 36 years in law enforcement. He now lives in Arizona.

"We didn't get calls about somebody getting high and beating up their wife like happens with alcohol," he said. "Marijuana people don't cause trouble."

But Carolyn Short, chairwoman for Keep AZ Drug Free, said legalizing marijuana would give kids the idea that marijuana is safe when medical studies indicate that it isn't.

"We know that marijuana use is associated with schizophrenia, respiratory disease, cardiac disease and both temporary and long-term decreased brain function," she said.

Safer Arizona has until July 3 to get the 259,213 signatures needed to get marijuana legalization on this year's ballot. If it fails, the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which was behind the effort to bring medical marijuana to Arizona, is gearing up for campaign here in 2016, when a presidential election will boost voter turnout.

Whether legalization is on the ballot this year or in 2016, Cecil said he will keep advocating for the recreational use of the drug.

"Somebody has to be the voice of reason and the voice of what voters want," he said.

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