A group calling itself the Medical Marijuana Policy Project has succeeded in getting an initiative on the November ballot that would allow use of marijuana to treat the symptoms of illness.
Voters were asked on two previous occasions to approve similar ballot measures. They obliged, only to find the laws struck down on technicalities.
This time, group representatives say, things will be different.
"It's about patients," said Andrew Myers, campaign manager and treasurer of the Medical Marijuana Policy Project. "There are already thousands of patients in Arizona with a doctor's recommendation to treat terminal illnesses (with marijuana)."
Myers said the new law would benefit those people who can't find relief with the use of conventional medications. They turn to the criminal market to find marijuana, risking arrest and imprisonment.
"They face a terrible choice," Myers said.
The law, appearing as Proposition 203 on ballots, would allow doctors to recommend marijuana to patients with specific medical conditions.
If passed, Arizona would join 13 other states that allow the medical use of marijuana. Though allowed under state laws, medical marijuana still conflicts with federal law.
The proposition also would effectively create a new industry in the state. A network of medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation operations would be established to feed the emerging demand.
The law would allow one dispensary for every 10 licensed pharmacies in the state. At current levels, the cap on dispensaries would stand at 120, each with its own cultivation operation.
Dispensaries and cultivation operations would operate as non-profit businesses.
Still, the prospect of dozens of marijuana shops opening their doors in communities across the state has some people concerned that Arizona could be headed down the wrong path. Among them is Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.
"For all intents and purposes, it's legalizing not only the personal use, but the cultivation of marijuana," LaWall said.
LaWall has co-authored a statement in opposition to Prop 203, with co-signers including the county attorneys from Cochise, Yuma, Apache, Gila, Yavapai, Navajo and La Paz counties.
Numerous sheriffs across the state, including Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, also signed the statement, which appears in the Nov. 2 ballot publicity pamphlet.
LaWall questions the initiative on numerous fronts, raising particular concerns about the possibility of minors getting doctors' recommendations for marijuana.
"Minors, persons under 18, can become patients," LaWall said. "I deal with kids all the time, the majority of those get it (marijuana) from their parents."
The county attorney said children often steal drugs from their parents, or their parents are complicit in giving them the drugs. She fears the medical marijuana law would further legitimize the drug in the minds of many people.
"That's a completely illegitimate criticism," Myers said.
Doctors routinely prescribe highly addictive painkillers and psychotropic drugs to minors. The medical marijuana law would place higher burdens on doctors before recommending the drug for children, he said.
"We are putting additional restrictions that it has to be two physicians to give a recommendation (before a minor can use medical marijuana)," Myers said.
LaWall also takes issue with employers not having the right to know if an employee uses medical marijuana. The law would ban employer discrimination against workers who use marijuana for medical purposes.
"I can't find out if anyone I hire is a registered cardholder," LaWall said. "I think that's frightening."
Under the law, employers could not fire someone who tests positive for marijuana if the person has qualified as a medical marijuana patient and had doctor's approval.
In addition, schools and landlords would not be allowed to discriminate against registered patients. Medical marijuana use alone also could not be used as grounds to deny visitation or custody rights.
"That's the same for every prescription drug," Myers said. "This does not say patients can use marijuana while on the job." He added that the law does have prohibitions written in that would make it illegal to come to work under the influence of marijuana.
Perhaps the biggest concern about the medical marijuana proposal lies in the perception that Arizona would become like California, where marijuana dispensaries have proliferated almost unabated.
"I think California is a good example," LaWall said. "Five years ago they had the medical legalization, now they are attempting to legalize."
In November, California voters will decide whether to legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, and cultivation of limited amounts. The California law would not legalize marijuana sales outright, but would allow local governments to regulate and tax commercial distribution operations. Passage of the proposition would make California the first state to legalize marijuana. California also has placed few limitations on conditions treatable with marijuana, or who can receive prescriptions for the drug.
Myers said his group was cognizant of the comparison with Arizona's neighbor when the proposition was written.
"In our state we have a very distinct list of conditions," Myers said.
The list of illnesses approved for treatment with marijuana in Arizona would include cancer, glaucoma, HIV positive, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
The Arizona Department of Health Services would regulate the medical use of marijuana and have the authority to add more conditions considered treatable by the drug.
The issue could be decided on Election Day, Nov. 2. For more information on this and other ballot initiatives, visit the Arizona Secretary of State's website at http://azsos.gov">azsos.gov.
Supporters of the medical marijuana initiative have a website at http://stoparrestingpatients.org">stoparrestingpatients.org.
Medical marijuana in other states
Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Rhode Island and Washington.