L I N D S E Y  W I S N I E W S K I  

By theno1pick, Dec 5 2015 12:03AM

A campaign created to legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona is quickly gaining traction with the state's education glitches at the forefront and could ask residents to legalize weed for anyone over the age of 21.

It's no shock that Arizona's education system has been deteriorating. Just this year, the Grand Canyon State ranked 47th in the nation for quality education, according to EdWeek. That same study found Arizona's education spending the lowest at $40.8 million, well below the national average of $65.4 million per year.

The Arizona Marijuana Initiative, created by the Marijuana Policy Project, would regulate the sales of cannabis, while adding a 15 percent sales tax to help fund education in Arizona. This money could be used to revitalize Arizona's K-12 school system and boost education funding.

But despite the projected funds, there has been clear opposition to the initiative.

More harm than help

Diane Douglas, the superintendent of public instruction for the state, has publicly vocalized her resistance to the legalization, even if it would help fill a gap in funding for education in Arizona.

"I don't know what the number will be, we don't know the number that will be generated," Douglas said during her "We Heard You Tour," in Mesa. "But I'm sorry, I do not believe in generating money for children's education through the perpetuation of vices, regardless of what those vices will be."

The Marijuana Policy Project believes the state could see revenue of up to $40 million annually once the regulations are applied. This estimate is based off of cannabis sales in Colorado but adjusted to reflect the state population and marijuana consumption rates here in Arizona, according to Carlos Alfaro, the group's campaign manager.

Seth Leibsohn, chair for the Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, a public education campaign to ensure marijuana legalization does not occur in Arizona, chimed in on Douglas' comments in agreement.

"You can't even build a school with that type of money," Leibsohn said. "It makes absolutely no since, it's like taxing the arson store to fund fire safety."

Leibsohn also emphasized his concern for the safety of adolescents and adults who may partake in using the drug, a view that is shared by many who are against its use.

"There's no shortage of studies of marijuana and the problems it causes," Leibsohn said. "We've spent the better part of seven decades trying to keep marijuana out of the hands of people [and] to abandon those seven decades...it's creating a problem to solve a problem."

On the other hand, vocalized supporters of the regulation of cannabis believe that the legalization will not only help the state's failing education system, but also solve various societal problems."

A controlled system

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, created by the Marijuana Policy Project, has been leading the pro-recreational cannabis push.

Alfaro says the campaign's goal is to reform pot laws throughout the state. However, he emphasized that the campaign's purpose is not to fix public education funding, but to regulate a market that's already in place.

"We understand that there is already an illegal market happening," Alfaro said, "And we just want to regulate it so that it's safe and benefits the community."

The group plans to regulate pot by establishing a system of licensed businesses, where products will be tested, packaged and labeled to guarantee consumers know what they're getting. Current medical dispensaries will be able to apply for a license to do this, should the initiative pass.

Mark Steinmetz, founder of Nature's AZ Medicines, a dispensary in Central Phoenix, says he intends to do just that.

"We've examined the legislation that's been proposed and there's a couple of different ballot initiatives, I think one is more responsible than the other," Steinmetz said. "And we support that legislation that basically takes a 15 percent excise tax on what some call adult use cannabis."

Additionally, Steinmetz argues against the views of many of the state's politicians, who believe marijuana would hinder, not aid, Arizona's education programs.

"Unfortunately, those very folks that are politicians that are against cannabis of any kind, medical or recreational, are also the same one's cutting rapidly from our education budgets," Steinmetz said. "Maybe their kids go to private schools but a lot of people in the state of Arizona rely on public education and so I think it's a great use of the funds."

Other states

If recreation marijuana was to be legalized in Arizona, it would join the District of Columbia, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in funding state education needs.

Scott Newell, the director for the Colorado Department of Education Division of Capital Construction, said that Colorado uses its excise taxes from marijuana to improve K-12 public school capital improvements. These improvements can be anything from ADA upgrades to building a school from the ground up.

"Any money going to us to help schools is helpful," Newell said. "It's additional revenue we didn't have before."

Newell says that Colorado has yet to meet its estimated $40 million cap. But in just a year, recreational marijuana has raised $23 million for education funding and Newell expects that it will hit $30 million by next June.

He adds that depending on what the state decides to use the money for, $40 million could have either a significant or small impact.

"You could have $23 million broken up into smaller projects or if you had a new school, $40 million could get eaten up pretty quickly," Newell said.

The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Initiative says Arizona schools could see funding for full-day kindergarten programs, school construction and maintenance costs and public education.

The future

With over 115,000 signatures collected so far, half of the 230,000 required, it should come as no surprise that the controversial issue may very well be on the 2016 ballot in Arizona. Despite the divide on the topic, all parties said they anticipate the vote will take place.

"I suspect it will get on the ballot," Leibsohn said. "They spend about a million dollars collecting these signatures."

In rebuttal, Alfaro says The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign expects to see the initiative enacted.

"The prohibitionists [were] wrong when they said marijuana was harmful and they will be wrong again in November when we win."