Pubdate: Thu, 15 Aug 2002
Source: Arizona Daily Sun (AZ)
Contact:  2002 Arizona Daily Sun
Author: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services


PHOENIX -- Backers of an initiative to further liberalize the state's drug
laws have lost a key ally. 

Former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini said Wednesday he cannot support
Proposition 203 even though he likes the idea of reducing the penalty for
possession of marijuana. DeConcini, a former Pima County Attorney, backed
the original 1996 initiative to liberalize the state's drug laws. 

This year's measure also expands the 1996 law which allows those with a
medical reason to possess the drug without fear of any law enforcement
action. DeConcini said that, too, is a worthwhile goal. 

What annoys DeConcini is a provision which lets people with a medical excuse
get their marijuana from the Department of Public Safety. 

"I think that's a huge mistake to place that burden on a law enforcement
agency," the former senator said. 

DeConcini said that, had he been asked to help craft this year's version, "I
would have made some strong suggestions and I might have supported it,
because I don't have objections to decriminalizing it for medical use only." 

The 1996 measure specifies that those arrested on possession of small
amounts of drugs cannot be sent to prison for a first or second offense.
Instead a judge is supposed to put that person on probation and tell them to
get treatment. 

That same law permits doctors to prescribe otherwise illegal drugs to
terminal and seriously ill patients. That provision has not been used
because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency threatened to revoke the federal
prescription writing privileges of physicians who acted under the law. 

This year's version seeks to get around that by saying those with a doctor's
recommendation -- short of a formal prescription -- can possess marijuana
without fear of prosecution. They could get their drugs from DPS. 

"They're the ones who confiscate it," said Sam Vagenas, who is coordinating
the initiative. And they would continue to do that, even if the initiative
passes: Possession would remain illegal for those without a doctor's
permission, though the penalty for two ounces or less would be a $250 fine. 

Vagenas said he doubts that DeConcini's change of heart would have a big
effect on voter support for this year's measure. He pointed out the
initiative has the support of others, including former Attorney General
Grant Woods. 

But it does not have the backing of Janet Napolitano, Woods' successor --
and for some of the same reasons as DeConcini. 

"Quite frankly, the Department of Public Safety doesn't have the resources
to do it's fundamental job which is to patrol the highways and protect the
public safety," she said. "The notion that they're going to be now the
marijuana distributor for the state is a dilution of resources that is not
well taken." 

Napolitano said that the drug laws on the books -- including the 1996
initiative -- should be allowed to work. 

That stance, she acknowledged, also puts her at odds with Maricopa County
Attorney Rick Romley and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. They are
pushing Proposition 302 which seeks to alter than 1996 law to allow the
incarceration of those who refuse to participate in drug treatment programs. 

"We have to give our courts and our probation officers some tools," said
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