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Wed, Feb. 19

Prop. 203 could send marijuana laws ... up in smoke

The laws regarding marijuana could change if voters approve Proposition 203.

A "yes" vote, according to the Secretary of State's office, would decriminalize marijuana possession for personal use. In addition, the measure would:

• Require distribution of marijuana free of charge by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) with a physician's written permission.

• Increase the maximum sentence for violent crimes while committed under the influence of drugs.

• Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.

• Require parole for persons convicted of personal possession of a controlled substance unless they are a danger to the public.

A "no" vote retains the current criminal penalties for possession of marijuana and other controlled substances.

According to the Legislative Council, voters approved an act in 1996 that allowed medical doctors to prescribe certain controlled substances to treat diseases or to relieve the symptoms of seriously and/or terminally ill patients.

The act also modified the probation, sentencing and treatment laws for drug offenders.

Proposition 203 would decriminalize the possession of two ounces or less of marijuana, marijuana drug paraphernalia or two or fewer marijuana plants if the possession is for personal use.

However the possessor could be subject to a civil fine of $250 for a first or second offense or $750 for a third or subsequent offense within a two-year period.

A judge could waive the civil fine if the person completes a court approved drug education program.

In addition:

• Those convicted of drug offenses will pay for drug treatment and prevention themselves. Drug fines should be placed in the Drug Treatment and Education Fund.

• Violent drug felons would face tougher punishments. The maximum sentence for violent crimes causing serious injury or death committed while under the influence of drugs will increase by 50 percent, but the measure would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

• Arizona marijuana laws, which currently provide that someone caught with a small amount of marijuana cannot face a felony and possible jail time, would change. Possession for small amounts of marijuana will be changed to a civil violation with a fine.

• Persons facing drug offenses will not have their property forfeited unless and until they are found guilty of a crime.

The fiscal impact of Proposition 203, according to the Secretary of State's office, "is projected to reduce state prison costs."

Increased costs for probation and the medical marijuana registry and distribution system could offset the savings partially. The proposition requires the parole of certain prison inmates currently serving a sentence for personal possession or use of a controlled substance, eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for certain drug offenses and increases the maximum sentence by 50 percent for violent crimes committed while under the influence of drugs.

Overall, says the report, these provisions are likely to reduce the state prison population and result in savings.

The proposition would also result in some increased probation costs, as the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences would result in some drug offenders sentenced to supervised probation. "This cost could be partially offset by a provision which would reduce current probation expenses by changing possession of two ounces or less of marijuana from a criminal violation to a civil violation," says the report.

Therefore any increased probation costs "would be less than the prison savings as probation is less costly than prison."

In 1996, Arizonans overwhelmingly approved an initiative to provide medical marijuana to seriously ill patients and drug treatment to medically dependent offenders.

Proposition 203 defines a "debilitating medical condition" as cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), or the treatment for conditions that include severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, persistent muscle spasms or any other medical condition or treatment for a medical condition adopted by the DPS by rule.

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