Biden’s ‘green wave’: Swing state Arizona may legalise marijuana as well as turn Democratic

Voters rejected a previous legalization effort in 2016, but plenty has changed in four years

Josh Marcus
Friday 06 November 2020 17:13
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<p>Signs supporting Democrats in Arizona, which has a real change of going blue in 2020 after decades of voting for conservatives in national elections.</p>

Signs supporting Democrats in Arizona, which has a real change of going blue in 2020 after decades of voting for conservatives in national elections.

This November, Arizona voters will decide on Proposition 207, a ballot measure which would legalize recreational marijuana and soften the state’s exceptionally tough drug laws. 

Depending on whom you ask, its primary effect would be raising $254 million a year in state revenues, or emptying prisons and letting thousands clear racist drug charges from their records. Or they might say it creates a compliance and HR nightmare for employers, or hooks children on drugs. That is, if anyone is even paying attention.

A world-wrecking pandemic and hotly contested national elections have drowned out almost everything else in Arizona politics this fall. Arizona, solidly Republican for decades and once home to the most conservative legislature in the country, has a population that’s growing bigger, more Hispanic, and more liberal by the year, and it’s now considered a swing state, where both the presidency and a Senate seat are up for grabs. Drug policy, it seems, is not top of anyone’s mind.

“This is probably 5th or 6th on the list”, said Lorna Romero, a conservative strategist, of Prop. 207. “The amount of advertising for both President Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, [Senate candidates] Martha McSally and Mark Kelly—anything else that’s not in those two races, it’s hard to even cut through.”

Which is a shame, because the future of Prop. 207 could reveal plenty about how the state, and the country at large, see business, culture, racial justice, taxes, and government, and will help determine the extent that Arizona really is the mythical swing state some say it is.  

In addition to the tax dollars, 207’s backers see it as a way to put the demands of this summer’s record-breaking civil rights protests into action and make the criminal justice system less racist.

The measure makes it legal for adults over 21 to carry small amounts of marijuana, decriminalizes penalties for youth possession, funds restorative justice programs, and sets aside a portion of marijuana retail licenses for communities historically impacted by the War on Drugs.

“More so than any other time that I can remember, there’s interest in criminal justice reform”, says Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney at Arizona’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“We’re way behind the rest of the country when it comes to criminal justice reform, and just not in comparison to Democratic states, but compared to other red states, like Texas. I think that if the human costs of our current system don’t bother people, then the financial costs do.”

Arizona incarcerates more people than all but four states in the country, Mr Keenan says, and is the only state in America to make possession of even the smallest amount of marijuana a felony.

It was also home to the controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who rose to national prominence through a proto-Trump mix of media theatrics and staunchly anti-immigrant politics, such as making inmates wear pink underwear and work in chain gangs. (In 2017, President Trump pardoned Mr Arpaio, who a federal court found in contempt for continuing to racially profile Latinos despite a court order).    

Hoi Ming Lee McVey, who heads Arizona State University’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which supports 207, says that the pandemic sapped some momentum, but Black Lives Matter protests this year helped underscore what’s at stake with the ballot measure.

“In the past six months, conversation on criminal justice has drastically shifted”, she says. “It was very academic. Now it’s harder to have those discussions without thinking about all these protests that’ve been happening.”

Arizona rejected a similar ballot measure in 2016, and a textbook conservative coalition of business groups, law enforcement, Christian leaders, and elected Republicans oppose the measure this time around. (Representatives for Arizonans for Health and Public Safety, the main group opposing the initiative, did not respond to a request for comment). 

On 26 October, Sahuarita, a smaller, conservative-leaning town south of Tucson, passed rules saying only the state’s already-legal medical dispensaries could set up shop in town for the time being.

“I’ve had feedback from residents. They’re concerned about the kids and the schools and what this means", says Sahuarita Mayor Thomas Murphy, who is a Republican. “Instead of throwing the barn door wide open and hoping it goes well, it gave us some ability to engage and understand who’s coming and who’s not, just putting some proactive measures in place.”

Others, like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, worry about the business impact of allowing legal marijuana, whether that’s keeping workplaces drug-free, or keeping companies out of trouble with  federal law, where marijuana remains illegal.

“Nobody within our membership is clamoring for this", says Garrick Taylor, executive vice president of the group. “Nobody is making the case that we can improve Arizona’s economic lot in life by diving headlong into the legalization experiment.”

There’s also the concern, Mr. Taylor says, about the method of reform. Under Arizona law—hammered out, incidentally, in response to a medical marijuana push in the ‘90s—once a ballot measure passes, it takes a legislative supermajority to change it, and even then they can only do so narrowly. That means any imperfections or oversights are effectively baked in for good, a concern given that legalization is often a messy process even once it passes, with states like California, Massachusetts, and Ohio struggling to carry out key promises around equity and taxation.

“The initiative process in Arizona is an extremely high stakes game of lawmaking,” Mr Taylor says. “Unless the proponents have gotten this exactly right, we could be in for a real world of hurt.”

But Republicans hold the governorship and both houses of Congress, so the ballot process is the only viable path for the legalizers, a common trend among the District of Columbia and eleven states where recreational marijuana is legal.

“There’s no way the Arizona legislature under republican control is going to tackle an issue this big,” says Yes on 207 spokesperson Stacy Pearson. “I hope at some point the legislature is going to be able to look at criminal justice reform in a more comprehensive way, but for now this is a shortcut to do right by at least 200,000 Arizonans.”

To outflank the statehouse, they’re hoping to court the same growing constituencies in the state that have made it a battleground in 2020: young people, liberals, suburban women, and Latinos.

But it would be a mistake, say political observers, to see Prop. 207’s presence on the ballot, or Arizona’s prominence in the 2020 election at large, as evidence that the state has fundamentally bucked its decades-long conservative streak and replaced it with a lasting multi-racial coalition of Democrats.

For one thing, if it’s not already obvious, Donald Trump is an anomaly. He seemed to help drive massive turnout in the state in 2018, where Latinos and cross-over support from Republican women in the urban Phoenix area helped elect Kyrsten Sinema, the first Democrat to win a US Senate race in Arizona since 1988. But whether that trend left will continue onwards is an open question.

“We’ve seen significantly since 2016 a large number of moderate Republicans in Arizona that have now turned away from the president, so it’s a question of how does that impact the rest of the ballot?” says Ms Romero, the conservative strategist. “They may cross over to vote for Biden, but that doesn’t mean they all of a sudden become a Democrat.”

And while the state’s Latino population may be growing, up to 31 percent from 25 in 2000, Tony Valdovinos, a political consultant who works on Latino voter turnout, says that doesn’t mean guaranteed votes for Democrats, as some seem to think. He says many of the districts he’s working in still aren't turning out big numbers of Latinos despite their potential to.

“They don’t care if people come and visit the state at some event center. These people are working. These people are struggling”, he says. “People are cautious. People don’t f—g trust Democrats anymore, especially Latinos. You elect a lot of folks that tokenize Latinos, but when it comes down to policy, take a huge step back.”

As ever, the question of politics remains how much people see a connection between what candidates say at rallies and events centers and how they live their lives. In Arizona, the answer might be changing. 

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