Pubdate: Wed, 06 May 2015
Source: Sun, The (Yuma, AZ)
Copyright: 2015 The Sun
Author: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services


PHOENIX - Attorney General Mark Brnovich has cleared the way for 
public officials to use their offices and resources to "educate" 
voters on why they believe marijuana should not be made legal.

In a new formal opinion, Brnovich acknowledged various laws prohibit 
the use of public funds to influence the outcome of elections. And 
the attorney general said that restriction applies even before a 
proposal has qualified for the ballot.

But Brnovich said nothing in these laws precludes public education 
campaigns - even ones that are not fair and balanced. He said even 
one-sided arguments are permitted "so long as they do not 
unambiguously urge the electorate to cast a vote for or against the measure."

The opinion is a significant victory for Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.

She is spearheading efforts to kill an initiative drive to allow the 
recreational use of marijuana. And Polk has formed a political action 
committee to collect private donations to put out that message.

But she said that Brnovich's opinion allows her to keep doing what 
she has been doing since before the initiative campaign was launched: 
Go out, on public time, and talk with voters about marijuana - and 
about making it legal.

"If I'm doing a presentation on marijuana's harm, I will always get a 
question about legalization," she told Capitol Media Services. "This 
says I can answer that question."

Polk said that means she can discuss what she sees as the experience 
in Colorado which already has gone down that path.

"I can talk to them about what I see as the impact in Arizona if 
marijuana is legalized," Polk continued. "What I can't do is use that 
as a forum to say, 'If it's on the ballot, I am asking you to vote no.'"

But Ryan Hurley, the attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project of 
Arizona that is attempting to put the issue before voters in 2016, 
said he believes Polk - or any other official - would be breaking the 
law by saying on the public dime that the drug should not be legalized.

"If they want to say in their opinion that marijuana might be harmful 
to society, maybe that's something that they can do," he said. But 
Hurley said the moment Polk or anyone says that marijuana 
legalization is a bad idea, "that's advocating a position on the initiative."

"It's a fine line," Hurley conceded. "Certainly, the intent of what 
they're doing is going to become an important issue in this."

How Hurley sees the issue versus how Polk does could lead to litigation.

"The opposition on this issue has crossed the line in several other 
states," Hurley said. And he said it's an issue that legalization 
supporters are monitoring.

"We certainly think they have better things to do than use public 
funds to influence the outcome of the election," he said. "We think 
the voters are smart enough to make that decision on their own."

Polk, who has been at the forefront of efforts to spread the word 
about the dangers of marijuana, said she sees the legal opinion as 
giving her broad latitude.

"I feel very comfortable I can continue to do what I've been doing as 
county attorney," she said.

The ballot measure proposes to treat marijuana similar to alcohol. 
Adults 21 and older would be permitted to purchase and use it from 
state-licensed stores, with the product subject to special luxury taxes.

Backers have until July 7, 2016, to get 150,642 valid signatures on 
petitions to put the issue on the general election ballot that year.

Brnovich based his opinion on a 2002 ruling from the state Court of 
Appeals involving efforts by the city of Tucson to hike its sales tax 
for transportation projects. Former state Rep. John Kromko sued, 
saying the materials the city distributed at public expense were biased.

But the appellate court concluded that the city had not crossed the 
line, saying the materials "provide information regarding the 
propositions, Tucson's traffic problems and the solutions proposed by 
the plan in such a way that a reasonable person might conclude that 
the city was educating the public on the issues, albeit in an 
entirely positive light."

"This is not necessarily the same as an unambiguous urging of the 
electorate to vote in favor of the propositions," the ruling states.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom