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2:35 PM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Groups take up sides on marijuana legalization

A political action committee opposing the legalization of recreational marijuana in Arizona has formed, as supporters continue to work on language for a ballot initiative.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is vice chair of the opposition group, called Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy.

"Number one, we're just trying to get the facts out there because we believe strongly if people understand the facts about marijuana, it will be a no-brainer," Polk said.

Marijuana is especially harmful to the developing adolescent brain, Polk said. Youth who regularly use pot are three times less likely to graduate from high school, she said.

Seth Leibsohn, a political consultant and Phoenix radio host, chairs the new group. Marilee Fowler, director of the Yavapai County based Matforce anti-drug coalition, is secretary. Sally Schindel of Prescott, a Matforce volunteer who speaks publicly about how marijuana contributed to her son's suicide, is treasurer.

"We formed to do everything in our power to make sure marijuana is not legalized in Arizona," Fowler said.

The group plans to raise money to fight any ballot question seeking to legalize marijuana in Arizona.

The Marijuana Policy Project and Safer Arizona are in the coalition that is planning a petition drive to get a marijuana legalization question on Arizona's 2016 ballot.

"This is a fundamental issue of freedom," said Mikel Weisser, a Safer Arizona board member from the Kingman area who also has been a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives 4th Congressional District seat that represents Yavapai County.

The coalition hopes to start its petition drive by late April, said Carlos Alfaro, Arizona political director for Marijuana Policy Project.

Organizers are still trying to decide whether the ballot language should seek to legalize personal marijuana cultivation, Alfaro and Weisser said.

"Our membership has made a firm hue and cry for cultivation," Weisser said. "Personal cultivation is at the heart of ending prohibition."

Arizonans narrowly approved the legalization of medical marijuana in 2010. Weisser said he is a medical marijuana card holder because of back problems.

Yavapai County has consistently had the highest per capita number of medical marijuana cardholders, at 17.2 people per 1,000 residents in the Arizona Department of Health Services' 2014 report. The county has a total of 3,694 cardholders, third behind Maricopa and Pima counties. The state has a total of 61,272 medical marijuana cardholders.

Polk and Weisser both theorized that the high number of people in recovery in Yavapai County might have something to do with the high percentage of cardholders.

While she's not sure why Yavapai has such high usage, Fowler said statistics are clear that younger men who list chronic pain as their reason for getting medical marijuana cards are the highest users.

An early March poll by ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy found that 45 percent of respondents support legalizing marijuana for adults, while 42 percent support it only for medical use.

Colorado and Oregon have legalized recreational marijuana. Along with Arizona, initiatives seeking legalization could try to get on the 2016 ballot in California, Nevada and Maine.

If the petition drive takes place for the 2016 election, organizers could have a harder time getting the question on the ballot.

House Bill 2407 modifies requirements for voter initiatives and requires petition drives to strictly comply with them.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder