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Arizona legislature opens with a flurry of cannabis bills

Published on January 12, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
cannabis legalization update in arizona
Lawmakers gather in Phoenix for a short three-month session that opens on Monday morning. (dszc/iStock)

Nearly four years have passed since Arizona voters rejected adult-use cannabis legalization—the only one of five states to reject it on the November 2016 ballot. Now advocates in the Grand Canyon State are gearing up again to legalize the plant in late 2020.

Lawmakers aren't waiting for a legalization vote in November. They want to pass needed reform measures now.

“We hope to have the 237,000 required signatures by May, and get the campaign going shortly after,” said Mikel Weisser, executive director of Arizona NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

Weisser, who has been involved with the state’s NORML chapter since 2014, expects 2020 to be a banner year for both medical and adult-use cannabis in Arizona. He said a beef between cannabis industry leaders and grassroots marijuana advocates led to “significant” differences in opinion on the failed Proposition 205 in 2016, causing even a chunk of pro-cannabis residents to vote against it.

Disagreements about business interests and growing rights, according to Weisser, have been ironed out and Arizona’s cannabis industry finds itself “more unified than ever.” To make up for the 2.5% loss four years ago, Weisser has already started campaigning in rural Arizona. He called the non-urban demographic “vital” to success at the ballot box.

“We have that community on our side now instead of opposing us,” he said. “We know we’re going to get Phoenix and Tucson, but it’s about getting the people outside the big cities, too.”

New session opens Monday

Between now and November, plenty of cannabis-related challenges await in the upcoming legislative session, which opens in Phoenix on Monday. Republicans control the house, the senate, and the governor’s mansion—and the party here has traditionally opposed cannabis reform, despite a growing openness to legalization among Republicans nationwide.

One measure would allow pediatric patients to take cannabis medicine on school grounds, which is currently illegal.

Several cannabis-related bills are on expected to be considered in the upcoming four-month session. One of the leading measures would address pediatric patient medical access on school campuses. Students with severe medical conditions, like cancer and epilepsy, would be allowed to take medical forms of cannabis at school.

If passed, the bill would carve out an exception to existing state law, which prohibits all forms of cannabis on school property.

Weisser said the medical cannabis would come in capsule or oil form, not as a brownie or as smokable flower. Similar measures passed in California and Colorado last year, and Illinois in 2018.

Ban Eagle 20, but not everything?

Another measure deals with pesticides in the medical cannabis growing process. An expected bill would specifically ban the use of pesticides at cultivation facilities, except for those not regulated by the U.S. Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.

Sponsored by Republican majority whip Sen. Sonny Borelli, the pesticide bill would specifically target the fungicide Eagle 20. The popular agricultural product is widely used on everything from lawn grass to fruit trees. Eagle 20 produces a highly toxic gas when heated above 400 degrees, however, which is why its use is prohibited on tobacco plants. (For context, common cannabis flower burns at around 450 degrees.) There’s currently no specific state law prohibiting the use of Eagle 20 on cannabis grown in Arizona and sold to medical patients.

Eagle 20 has few fans, but for some Borelli’s early draft goes too far.

Borrelli’s SB 1015 bill would ban all federally identified pesticides—not just Eagle 20—which has some industry representatives crying foul. If passed, SB 1015 would leave just essential oils and natural peppers among the only permitted pesticides.

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Pele Fischer, an Arizona lobbyist representing the state’s dispensary association, argued Borelli’s new pesticide-free testing standard would not allow cultivators to grow enough high-quality cannabis to meet dispensary demand.

Other bills to consider

Sen. Borelli also plans to sponsor two bills that might be considered “trust but verify” measures. These measures would give the Arizona State Department of Revenue access to certain records kept by state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.

Borelli told local media the extra audits would make sure dispensaries are in fact collecting and remitting state sales tax to the proper marijuana regulating body, the Department of Health Services.

Another expected bill would expand the number of medical conditions that qualify for legal medical cannabis use. A measure sponsored by Rep. Diego Espinoza (D-Tolleson) adds opioid use and autism to the state’s list of qualifying conditions.

A separate bill sponsored by Rep. Diego Rodriguez calls for expunging certain marijuana possession crimes for less than 2.5 ounces of flower.

Key players in the session

As with most state legislatures, a few powerful lawmakers can make or break a measure’s chances. Here are a few people to watch over the next three months in Phoenix.

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley (D-Tuscon)
Powers Hannley sponsored separate cannabis bills last session to increase the value of medical marijuana cards, as part of four total cannabis bills last year. She was also a strong voice in pushing through SB1494, an omnibus industry-supported measure which set stringent new testing regulations to improve the quality of medical cannabis sold at dispensaries. The mega-bill also made the state’s $150 medical marijuana card valid for two years instead of just one.

Powers Hannley told the Arizona Capitol Times last June that she favors full legalization of cannabis to end “over policing” of the plant.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)
Borelli, the majority whip, has long supported Arizona’s industrial hemp farmers. His 2018 bill cleared the way for local farmers to finally start growing hemp last year.

Rep. Randall Friese (D-Tucson):
Friese sponsored a last-second amendment to SB1494 last year that allowing medical cannabis patients to renew their state-issued cards every two years, instead of annually. His bill to legalize medical cannabis edibles fell failed in a narrow vote last March. Edibles and other cannabis extraction products were ultimately declared legal in a state supreme court ruling later that year.

Cannabis Extracts Are Legal, Arizona High Court Rules

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Chris Kudialis
Chris Kudialis
Chris Kudialis is a Las Vegas–based cannabis reporter. He has written articles for the Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Sun, Charlotte Observer, Houston Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, and Brazil's Rio Times, among other metropolitan dailies.
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