Marijuana use as ‘health problem and not a criminal justice problem’ marks important shift in Arizona
by: Ellen O’Brien | Staff Writer
“Transformative” and “monumental” — that’s how Tim Eckstein, a Jewish criminal defense attorney and member of the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, describes the passage of Proposition 207, which legalized adult possession of marijuana in Arizona.
“The fundamental recognition that this is a public health problem and not a criminal justice problem, that sort of philosophical shift — the import of that can’t be understated,” Eckstein said.
Arizona voters passed the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, or Prop 207, by a 60% majority in the Nov. 3 election. The initiative legalizes the possession and use of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older and the cultivation of up to six marijuana plants in a person’s primary residence. The bill also allows for the licensure of businesses selling marijuana for recreational use and imposes a 16% excise tax on sales of marijuana. Smoking marijuana in public places is prohibited.
In one of the most immediate and visible consequences of the vote, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel announced Nov. 9 that her office would drop all pending cases for marijuana possession. A survey by the Associated Press found that at least 12 of Arizona’s 15 county attorneys implemented similar policies in November.
“It’s really meaningful to those individuals in that they don’t have to worry about dealing with that particular charge and then all of the life-altering consequences of that,” Eckstein said.
Marijuana possession was previously a felony under Arizona law, and even for first-time offenders who didn’t serve prison time, the record of a felony drug possession charge had long-term consequences, including limiting employment prospects and increasing the chances of serving future prison sentences. In addition to removing the threat of a felony charge, Eckstein said, the initiative will likely ultimately dismantle the industry of diversion programs, drug tests and associated fines and fees that has grown up around the prohibition of marijuana.
Both proponents and opponents of legalizing marijuana often predict dramatic consequences. Yet according to analysis from the Morrison Institute for Pubic Policy at ASU, “the experience from other states suggests minor impacts from legalization,” with a modest increase in marijuana consumption and a decrease in law enforcement activity related to marijuana.
Eckstein acknowledges that Arizonans won’t see an immediate change in the number of inmates in prisons and jails as a result of the law, but he suggested that the new law will prevent many people from becoming caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.
“We’re going to see a decrease in the jail and prison populations, but it’s going to be one that’s over time rather than something that’s dramatic and short-term,” Eckstein said.
Additionally, Eckstein said, the law will allow the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys, to focus on bigger issues.
“Because it reduces the volume of cases for everybody in the system … they can refocus on those cases that really deserve more attention, those [that involve] public safety and serious crimes,” Eckstein said.
Under Prop 207, adult possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is legal as of Nov. 30. The Department of Health Services will begin accepting applications for licenses from registered marijuana dispensaries in January 2021, and individuals with a criminal record of marijuana possession can petition to have their record expunged beginning July 12, 2021.
“The real objection to this, that I’ve heard, is the cost side — that if you make it legal, you’re going to increase the number of people who use marijuana and that comes with some societal costs,” Eckstein said. “And that’s certainly true, I don’t disagree with that. But the costs on the other side so far outweigh that.”
For criminal justice advocates, he added, treating marijuana consumption as the public health problem that it is marks a pivotal moment in drug policy in Arizona.
“Whatever we don’t like about it, it’s really a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” Eckstein said. “Everything else is possible now because of this.” JN