Pubdate: Sun, 26 Dec 1999
Source: Arizona Daily Star (AZ)
Copyright: 1999 Pulitzer Publishing Co.
Author: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services 


Think folks in Maricopa County are conservative? Think again: Most Valley
of the Sun residents want to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession,
according to a new survey. They also want to thwart the federal
government's intervention in the state's medical marijuana laws.

That survey says seven out of 10 Maricopa County residents would support a
new initiative to set up a statewide distribution system for medical

The same measure also would reduce the penalty for possession of less than
2 ounces of marijuana from a felony - carrying a possible prison term - to
a maximum $500 fine.

In fact, police could not arrest offenders but would instead have to issue
them citations to appear in court. They could, however, seize the marijuana.

Potentially more significant, the initiative would make a small but crucial
change in the law originally adopted by voters in 1996: It would allow
doctors to recommend that their patients use marijuana.

The current law allows physicians to prescribe marijuana and other drugs
under certain circumstances. But most doctors appear unwilling to do that
because U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said that could lead to federal
criminal charges, as well as exclusion from federal Medicare and Medicaid

Pollster Earl deBerge said the survey shows that voters are rejecting
contentions by some elected officials that they didn't know what they were
doing when they approved the measure in 1996, and in 1998 when they
overturned legislative efforts to repeal it.

DeBerge said it isn't simply a question that voters like the idea of their
doctors being able to prescribe marijuana, the main point of the 1996 law.

He said his staff asked respondents questions on several points of the
initiative that likely will be on the November ballot. In every case, more
people supported what the measure will do than opposed it.

Even the section to cap the penalty at $500 for possession of small amounts
of marijuana was backed by 67 percent of those asked.

Overall, 70 percent said they would vote for the initiative. Only 21
percent were opposed, with 9 percent not sure.

Barnett Lotstein, special assistant Maricopa County attorney, said the poll
results - and the conclusion that voters don't go along with their elected
officials - are flawed.

``Every first offender in Maricopa County doesn't go to jail,'' he said,
but instead goes into a diversion program. If they complete drug treatment
and stay out of trouble, the charges are dropped.

That, he said, makes the basis of the initiative - and the poll - a ``false

Anyway, Lotstein said, the latest initiative is ``a veiled step toward
decriminalization and, ultimately, legalization of not only marijuana but
all Schedule 1 drugs,'' ranging from heroin to LSD.

He pointed out that those drugs were specifically included in the 1996
initiative even though much of the publicity was about the medical use of
marijuana. Lotstein said that message got lost as supporters spent $1.6
million against $30,000 for foes.

``We have to do a much better job of explaining what these propositions
propose,'' he said.

The new measure includes several provisions aside from the $500 fine and
allowing doctors to recommend marijuana. It also would make Attorney
General Janet Napolitano the state's best-known - if not largest - legal
drug supplier.

She would be required to set up a registry of patients who qualify for
medical marijuana and provide them with it, either from a federal
``compassionate use'' program or from marijuana that has been seized and

Another provision would strip police departments and prosecutors of the
money they derive by selling items seized from drug traffickers. That would
instead go for drug-treatment programs.

Proponents have until July 6 to gather 101,762 valid signatures to put the
measure on the statewide ballot.

Sam Vagenas, director of the group backing the initiative, which calls
itself The People Have Spoken, said the survey results are encouraging. He
estimated that his group has about one-fifth of the signatures necessary.

Backers appear to be well-financed, with major funding coming from the same
three proponents who largely financed the original 1996 law.

These are John Sperling, president of the Apollo Group and founder of the
University of Phoenix; George Soros, a New York City investor; and Peter
Lewis, an executive with Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance Co.

The three have contributed almost all of the $150,000 raised so far.
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