Marijuana legalization enjoys new high among Americans

Business is growing for dispensaries, like the Prime Leaf in Tucson, and many believe it could get even better if the state ever fully legalized marijuana use. Photo by J.D. Molinary/Arizona Sonora News

Arizona’s voters in 2016 narrowly defeated a proposition to legalize marijuana, but advocates for the measure say they aren’t done yet.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana, thanks to state laws granting medical status to cannabis. The rapidly shifting attitudes toward cannabis that helped pave the way toward full legalization are partly due to state medical marijuana laws. Arizona is one of 33 states that has medical marijuana laws.

Medical marijuana brought moral and scientific arguments to the fight against a U.S. drug policy that critics say has been based on fear and false assumptions for decades. However, it has also brought a big monetary argument too.

BDS Analytics, a data firm that focus on the cannabis industry, expects consumer spending in the United States will grow to $23.4 billion by 2022.

Legalization could also create lower cost for medical marijuana patients as well, which could become an effective alternative to opioids.

“You potentially have more people being able to access cannabis than before,” said Joe DeMenna, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association. “I think you’ll see a lot more people come away from pharmaceutical options once that threshold is lowered.”

Americans are becoming more comfortable with the idea of marijuana legalization. A Pew Research poll from September found that 62 percent in the U.S. favor of legalization, which is a 100 percent jump in support since 2000. Even John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House, is cashing in after a long political career opposing any steps toward legalization of the plant.

Cannabis becomes big business everywhere it pops up. Canada legalized cannabis earlier this year, becoming the second country to do so after Uruguay. Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana in 2012, made over $220 million in taxes, licenses and fees from January to October of 2018.

Arizona voters approved Proposition 203 in 2010 allowing for medical marijuana use. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), 16,313 patient applications were approved by November 2011. By October of this year, the number had risen to 182,784 patients.

The state has 115 operating dispensaries and 89 operating cultivation sites. Colorado, on the other hand, has more than 2,000 dispensaries.

Over 11,000 pounds of marijuana were sold in Arizona in October alone, according to data provided by ADHS. This is more than any other month this year; in February a little over 8,000 pounds were sold. Many say business could explode if Arizona legalized the plant.

“I have no doubt that Arizona will pass a law like (Proposition 205) in the near future,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Given the trend in support nationwide, it’s safe to expect that Arizona will pass a similar law in the near future.”

Arizona got a chance to legalize cannabis in 2016 with Proposition 205, and the measure failed to pass by only a few percentage points. According to Tvert, who worked on Prop. 205, opposition groups raised and spent approximately $6 million dollars to defeat the initiative.

“Marijuana has been illegal for decades and people have been hearing misinformation about it their entire lives,” said Tvert. “So, there’s an immediate disadvantage to these (legalization) campaigns.”

However, these disadvantages haven’t stopped many from preparing for the next chance, 2020, to make Arizona one of the next states to fully legalize marijuana.

“It’s that tsunami that’s coming,” said DeMenna. “And the real question is are you going to ride the wave or are you going to let it slap you down.”

Another challenge to the state’s cannabis industry came in June, when the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that concentrates are illegal because they’re not clearly defined by the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA).

Concentrates, such as vape oil and shatter, make up an expanding part of the cannabis industry. According to BDS Analytics concentrate sales have grown from 10 percent of legal sales in 2014 to about 27 percent this year and as concentrates grow in popularity it will save producers money throughout the supply chain.

Concentrates are also preferred by many medical patients. These products are usually more potent, can be easier to use and require less frequent use.

“It’s important to remember that concentrates are really the future of medical marijuana,” said DeMenna. “Concentrates allows for you to have consistent dose of medical marijuana that can then be measured.”

While concentrates may have been ruled illegal by the Court of Appeals, sales of these products haven’t ceased at many dispensaries. Even Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who was up for re-election in November, has changed his position. Brnovich has said he will no longer continue pushing for marijuana concentrates to be considered illegal for medical use because it could take medicine away from those who need it.

The ruling, appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, could cause problems for the industry if the state’s high court rules against concentrates being protected by the AMMA. DeMenna said this could impact businesses since dispensaries are developing out and focusing on concentrates since they are growing in popularity.

“We feel very optimistic about the (Arizona) Supreme Court taking on this case and addressing it, considering how many patients and people are being affected by this,” said DeMenna.

J.D. Molinary is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact J.D. at jdmolinary@email.arizona.edu