This is proving to be a big year for cannabis. As a result, we are ranking the fifty states from worst to best on how they treat cannabis and those who consume it. Each of our State of Cannabis posts will analyze one state and our final post will crown the best state for cannabis. As is always the case, but particularly so with this series, we welcome your comments. We are now reaching the point in our series where the states we are listing are not laughably (or should we say screamingly) bad, nor are they good. They are generally okay in some areas and bad (without being horrible) in others. Today we turn to number 26: Arizona.
Our previous rankings are as follows: 27. West Virginia; 28. Indiana; 29. North Carolina; 30. Utah; 31. South Carolina; 32. Tennessee; 33. North Dakota; 34.Georgia; 35. Louisiana; 36. Mississippi; 37. Nebraska; 38. Missouri; 39. Florida; 40. Arkansas; 41. Montana; 42. Iowa; 43. Virginia; 44. Wyoming; 45. Texas; 46. Kansas; 47. Alabama; 48. Idaho; 49. Oklahoma; 50. South Dakota.
Criminal penalties. In many ways, Arizona is a progressive state when it comes to cannabis. This is not the case regarding criminal penalties. Arizona has some uniquely harsh provisions relating to marijuana. The state imposes a fine for every marijuana offense. This fine must be at least $750 and the maximum fine for any marijuana penalty is $150,000. Additionally, if a person is caught with more than two pounds of marijuana with intent to sell or is caught growing marijuana, a judge may not suspend the sentence, grant probation, pardon or otherwise release the offender before he or she has served the entire sentence.
Arizona punishes cannabis possession as follows:
- Less than two pounds earns a minimum four-month jail sentence, with a maximum two-year sentence.
- Two to four pounds earns a minimum six-month sentence, with a maximum sentence of two years and six months.
- Over four pounds earns a minimum one-year sentence, with a maximum sentence of three years and nine months.
The charges for possession with intent to sell are as follows:
- Less than two pounds earns a minimum one-year sentence, with a maximum sentence of three years and nine months.
- Two to four pounds earns a minimum two-year sentence, with a maximum sentence of eight years and nine months.
- Over four pounds earns a minimum three-year sentence, with a maximum sentence of twelve years and six months.
Medical marijuana. In 2010, Arizona voters narrowly approved the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act by ballot initiative. The Act allows a qualifying patient to possess 2.5 oz. of cannabis or allows them to grow up to 12 plants. Qualifying patients must obtain authorization from an Arizona physician to use marijuana to treat a “debilitating condition.” Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, Crohn’s Disease, agitation of Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), or other chronic and debilitating diseases qualify as debilitating conditions making one eligible for medical cannabis. The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) oversees the state’s medical marijuana program and grants licenses to nonprofit dispensaries. ADHS has promulgated rules on Arizona medical marijuana, which are available here. According to a recent ADHS report, there are 97,938 qualified cannabis patients in Arizona.
Recreational marijuana. Arizona voters are almost certain to decide whether the state will legalize recreational marijuana this November. The “Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act” is currently being circulated in an effort to obtain the requisite number of signatures. Supporters of the Act have until July 7, 2016 to obtain 150,642 signatures. In May, SF Gate reported 215,000 Arizonans had signed in support of the initiative. Those signatures will need to be verified, which is why they will likely continue to collect signatures. According to a poll commissioned by Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, 43% of voters would approve “legalizing recreational marijuana use”, 49% would reject it, and 8% are undecided.
If the Act passes, Arizona would allow a person over 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana (with no more than 5 grams being a marijuana concentrate) and to possess up to six marijuana plants. The Act would create a new agency called the Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control to create rules, grant licenses, and oversee the recreational market. The state would allow four licensed types of “marijuana establishments” including retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and testing facilities. Public consumption of marijuana would still be prohibited under the new law. However, a person cannot be considered “under the influence” of marijuana if the evidence is only the presence of THC in a person’s metabolites. This is likely a response to the difficulty states face in regulating “stoned” driving. Another interesting quirk of the Act is that it expressly states that contracts regarding marijuana are enforceable under Arizona state law. This is likely a response to Hammer v. THCII, which held that a loan contract between lenders and a dispensary was not enforceable because it violated federal drug laws.
Bottomline. Though Arizona has a flourishing medical marijuana program and it may potentially legalize recreational marijuana this year its unbelievably harsh criminal penalties keep it in the bottom half of our ratings.. A person must spend 4 months in prison and could pay $150,000 find for possessing a small amount of marijuana without medical authorization. Though we commend Arizona voters for enacting a workable medical cannabis program, the state’s criminal penalties are far too harsh. We expect Arizona voters will remedy this by voting for recreational legalization this fall and when that happens Arizona will rank much higher on our list.