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Fri, Nov. 22

Column: It's time to decriminalize pot

A 19-year-old Texas man arrested in May could be imprisoned for life for selling pot brownies with hash oil in them. The Round Rock teen had no previous criminal record, but the mandatory sentence is 5-to-99 years.

On, a petition for clemency for a Vietnam veteran with marijuana arrests, who has already served 16 years of a life sentence, is gaining traction. Tennessee's three strikes law means this non-violent man will never leave prison otherwise.

Rapists and murderers may serve less time than pot sellers, meaning something is extremely askew in these state's legal systems. If you think Arizona isn't so harsh, think again.

More than 18,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession each year in Arizona. As a result, finding jobs is difficult because of their records. While New York was considering reducing its harsh Rockefeller-era marijuana laws in the 1980s (and eventually did), Arizona made all marijuana arrests felonies in 1988.

Even if the charges are reduced, many job application asks if the applicant has been charged with a felony and had the charge reduced. In a competitive job market, that makes it impossible to pass a background check.

Safer AZ, a group organized to reduce severe marijuana possession penalties, didn't get its bill passed this year, but is regrouping for next year. It plans to get a referendum on the ballot for recreational legalization in 2016, too. Mikel Weisser, candidate for Congress in District 4, is directing the group's organizational efforts.

The Yavapai Cannabis Coalition formed in May to support Safer AZ and to advocate for medical marijuana patients like Martin and all cannabis users. Comprised of a dozen medical marijuana patients - with conditions ranging from fibromyalgia to severe back pain - the group met at City Hall in Prescott Valley. It seeks to end the stigma of marijuana use and counter misinformation.

Marc Goodman, YCC organizer, said education is key, since most people don't know about the many benefits of cannabis - mainly because the U.S. government has suppressed information and stopped research to continue its failed drug war.

"If we can succeed in getting out the message that cannabis is safe, it's food, fuel and medicine, then we think public opinion will be on our side," Goodman said. "If just 10 percent of the population uses cannabis regularly, that's 30 million people who have been marginalized and disillusioned by their own government. Since at least half of the American public has tried cannabis and they're willing to admit it, the numbers are probably far higher."

Goodman said Arizona's referendum legalizing medical marijuana in 2010 was a good start, but the monopoly on sales by dispensaries has created a high-cost medicine many people can't afford because insurance won't cover it. Current laws make it impossible to grow cannabis plants at home if there's a dispensary within 25 miles.

"Police officers still treat medical marijuana patients like criminals, an attitude that needs to change," Goodman said, adding that, "The average medical marijuana user is terrified of law enforcement. If we don't take the opportunity to speak out now, we're going to be stepped on again and again."

Currently, dispensaries are not allowed to sell enough marijuana necessary for medical patients to make affordable tinctures and edibles, which some need to treat their conditions if they can't smoke. The state has made it difficult for patients to control pain and suffering without traditional pharmaceuticals - and that needs to change, too, Goodman says.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal, the majority of sales are still to medical marijuana patients, who depend on the safer, less side-effect prone medicine. The state raised $23 million in taxes, licensing and fees from the marijuana industry so far this fiscal year (up to April), and expects to reach $114 million by year's end.

Marijuana-generated revenues support administration and law enforcement, but at least $40 million will go to Colorado schools this year. Drug education programs for young people also have been declared successful, since their usage hasn't increased. In fact, marijuana usage generally has not risen. Those who were already using the drug are now buying it legally.

Arguments against ending marijuana prohibition are losing legitimacy as time goes by and even Arizona courts are siding with users in lawsuits.

Recently the Arizona Supreme Court threw out DUI charges against a man with marijuana metabolites in his blood, noting how even if a person is not impaired the drug's traces remain in the system for a month. In addition, an administrative judge ruled against blocking medical marijuana for treating PTSD. That decision is under review, but the issue won't go away.

On the negative side, ASU fired a leading marijuana researcher studying its efficacy for PTSD treatment. Reminds me of a UCLA research project finding that marijuana may have helped block lung cancer, rather than cause it. It wasn't pursued further. Apparently results and truth are less important than politics to some.

It's time to decriminalize marijuana use in Arizona. Wrecking the lives of people in the name of the lost drug war is just wrong.

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