Nightlife may have ebbed, but drunk driving hasn’t - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Nightlife may have ebbed, but drunk driving hasn’t

December 7th, 2020 SanTan Sun News
Nightlife may have ebbed, but drunk driving hasn’t

By Jim Walsh
Staff Writer

Arizona’s newly approved Proposition 207 is enabling as many as three million residents to buy a small amount marijuana legally for the first time without a state-issued medical card and get high in their home.

The new law promises millions of dollars for teacher training, substance abuse treatment, suicide prevention and even enforcement of impaired driving laws.

It also promises a host of challenges.

Police are preparing for more impaired drivers. The courts could see a deluge of requests for expungements of prior marijuana possession convictions.

Prop 207 provides for neither defense.

Prop 207 won a much larger victory – 1,946,440-1,302,458, or 60-40 percent, according to unofficial results – than President-elect Joe Biden did in the state.

Although it legalizes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, its full impact probably won’t hit home until April – when medical marijuana dispensaries will be able to sell weed to millions of new customers who won’t have to qualify for a medical marijuana card.

Of course, it’s not as if those without a card couldn’t find marijuana in Arizona, a border state known for illegal drug trafficking.

However, voter approval of the medical marijuana proposition in 2010 gave birth to a thriving industry.

Through October, 287,715 residents with cards bought 2,786,197 ounces of marijuana from dispensaries this year alone, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Tom Dean, a defense attorney who specializes in marijuana cases, said he anticipates many people will not understand all the nuances in the new law.

He said people may mistakenly believe they can buy recreational marijuana now.

They can’t because no dispensary is authorized to sell it and likely won’t be until April and Dean thinks some people “are going to say, ‘screw that, I’m going to buy it from someone willing to sell it to me.’’

Assuming the election results are certified tomorrow, the law will allow anyone over 21 to possess an ounce of marijuana legally and smoke it in their home.

Since those without a card won’t find any place to buy it legally, Dean advises people to be patient and wait until April, when dispensaries are expected to have the green light to sell recreational weed.

“I expect at least short term, there will be an increase until April or May’’ in black market sales, Dean said. “When there is demand, there is supply. This will cause a large increase in the black-market supply.’’

Meanwhile, police are readying for more stoned drivers.

Mesa police Officer George Chwe has spent the past year working with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, helping to establish a statewide standard for driving-under-influence investigations, which includes the influence of marijuana

Mesa alone has 25 officers trained as Drug Recognition Experts and the state has added 50 more, bringing Arizona’s statewide total to 346.

“I think we have a good head-start for this’’ law, Chwe said, noting more Mesa patrol officers are scheduled to receive additional training in how spot marijuana-induced impairment.

Chwe agreed with Dean that at least some people won’t want to wait and simply want to get high, fueling an increase in impaired driving.

“It’s going to go up. People will think it’s ok to smoke marijuana and drive,’’ Chwe said. “People smoke marijuana for the feeling it gives them.

“I tell them that feeling, because they feel different, they are going to drive different. If you drive different, you are impaired.’’

Under the new law, simply driving with an illegal drug in your system law will no longer apply to marijuana.

One major enforcement issue is the difference between arresting a driver high on alcohol and one high on weed.

While drivers can be arrested for having a .08 blood alcohol level, there is no established number of nanograms of marijuana metabolite at which drivers are presumed impaired on weed.

Officers must instead rely on their own observations of impaired driving and on an evaluation by a certified drug recognition expert.

For marijuana consumers, the new law does come at a financial cost.

Prop 207 includes a 16 percent excise tax on recreational sales – a surtax on top of normal state sales taxes.

Paul Paredes, a Tempe-based marijuana consultant, urged anyone with a medical marijuana card to continue using it because they won’t have to pay the excise tax.

He also noted that a medical marijuana card allows the purchase of 2½ ounces of marijuana in a 14-day period while someone without the card will be able to buy an ounce a day starting in April.

“The medical marijuana program is not going away,’’ Paredes said. “It would be advantageous for all patients’’ to have a medical marijuana card.

The proposition creates a potential market of more than 3 million recreational marijuana customers, he said.

“The dispensaries are stocking up and ramping up production,’’ Paredes said. “The product is going to expand in availability. It won’t be about quantity – it will be about quality.’’

But Dean said many users will opt to risk arrest and continue buying from their street dealer to avoid paying any tax.

“The black market will be able to offer a product for substantially less,’’ Dean said. “There’s going to be a lot of people who decide to sell without a license.’’

He said some users resent the fact that the marijuana industry will become a monopoly under the new law, likening it to behavior of the tobacco industry.

Prop 207 allows all current medical dispensaries to apply to the Arizona Department of Health Services for a recreational license, starting in January.

AZDHS also can award 26 new “social equity licenses’’ in communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Although AZDHS has until April to set the rules for such licenses, many people in the marijuana industry believe those licenses will go to minority communities, based upon arrest statistics and other metrics.

Beyond the creation of instant “marijuana millionaires’’ through the awarding of these new licenses, thousands of past felony convictions for possession of small quantities of marijuana could be expunged from defendants’ records under Prop 207.

The first step in this potentially life-changing process is already underway.

Maricopa County prosecutors already are dropping charges on pending cases related to possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

Mesa prosecutors also are dropping related charges of possession of drug paraphernalia if they are related to marijuana possession cases filed in Superior Court.

“Instead of continuing to spend resources on these cases, this office will begin implementing the will of the voters immediately. We are instructing deputy county attorneys to file a motion to dismiss any charge covered by Proposition 207,’’ said Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

“If those charges make up the entirety of the charges of the case, the entire case will be dismissed. If there are other felony charges the case will remain pending, but we will file motions to dismiss the charges covered by Proposition 207,’’ she said.

Dean said he anticipates a second wave of defendants with convictions for possession of 2 ½ ounces or less will petition in July for expungements.

He is working with the Arizona Cannabis Bar Association to set up a nonprofit that will file the petitions for free.

“If it’s pending, you get it dismissed. If it’s over, you get it expunged. But what about the people in the middle?’’ he said.

Gray areas affecting defendants serving time in prison or who are on probation will probably end up being litigated in court, Dean.

He said the potential pool of defendants who can improve their job prospects by getting felony records expunged is enormous,

State Department of Public Safety records list about 15,000 to 18,000 marijuana possession arrests a year since 2006 and numerous other defendants merely being cited for a violation.

Will Humble, the former director of AZDHS, said there’s no doubt marijuana hinders the development of the adolescent brain and that parents will need to communicate with their children about the new law.

But Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said he ended up endorsing the law for it’s potential in helping people get better jobs and live healthier lives.

“To me, the existing marijuana law caused more public health damage than the drug,’’ he said.