Update: Blizzard of Pro-Marijuana Bills, Round Two

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By Mikel Weisser, editor of Arizona Cannabis Monthly and State Director, Arizona NORML. Reprinted with permission.

After the opening week deluge of 17 MJ-related bills, the pace slowed a bit, but there have still been 12 additional MJ bills filed in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of the legislature. So far this session almost 30 cannabis-related bills have already been filed with several highly anticipated bills are still in the works, easily eclipsing last year’s record of 24 MJ bills. As American Legion activist John Mendibles observed about the astonishing phenomena, “You make something popular, everybody wants some.”

While it is exciting to see that many pieces of legislation in play that could potentially fix some of the problems our community is concerned with, getting a bill filed is just the first step. Think back to your junior high social studies favorite teaching aid, the 1976 Schoolhouse Rock video “I’m Just a Bill.” Force-fed to tens of millions of captive schoolkids, referenced and/or parodied by everyone from Jeff Sessions to Dave Chapelle, the vid covers the basic sequence each piece of legislation must go through to become a law: 1. filed in either chamber, 2. assigned to committee, 3. heard and passed in committee, 4. approved by the Committee of the Whole of House or Senate, 5. then sent to the other chamber where, 6. it again must be assigned to a committee, 7. approved by the committee, 8. then approved by the whole chamber, THEN, if there weren’t changes along the way that have to be addressed (possibly step 10), 11. then it goes onto the governor, who can still simply veto it if he doesn’t like it (much like he did with the 2017 hemp bill.)

According the AZ Legislative schedule, all bills in the House must be filed by Feb. 11 (the 4th for the Senate), heard in committee in either house by Feb 22, passed out of committee by March 14, approved by the COW and sent to the other chamber by March 29. Historically, zero positive MJ-related bills even got assigned to committee, much less heard. 2017 marked the first time a positive cannabis bill made it to the governor, 2018 the first time a governor signed one into law.

Here’s a quick overview:

Senate

1137 (Borrelli-R, LD5) First of the promised testing bill this session, Borrelli hits many of the basic concepts expected in a testing bill: requires both dispensaries and caregivers to test all medical cannabis they distribute, establishes the licensing and legal protections for testers and testing labs, but also moves the regulation of cannabis cultivation to the Dept of Ag. While there are great arguments to be made that cannabis is an agricultural commodity and should be regulated by the Ag Dept. that choice torpedoed Borrelli’s much more elaborate testing bill last year and is already creating negative buzz for his new effort. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success:<50%

1138 (Borrelli-R, LD5) Borrelli’s 2018 bill, SB1420 had many good ideas in it. Here Borrelli has peeled off his provisions on patient card costs and filed them as their own bill. Taking a cue, make it two cues, from Democratic cannabis reformer, Pam Powers-Hannley (D-LD9) this bill would extend card length to two years, and, lower the cost per card to $50. Since DHS has already rejected the $50 card idea a couple of times, this bill will need amending to pass. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <25%

1202 (Quezada-D, LD29) A similar effort on restoring voting rights to Rep Kirsten Engel’s (D-LD10) HB2401, with an even lower probability of success since it has only one sponsor and that sponsor is a D. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set. Probability of Success: <25%

1222 (Boyer-R, LD20) Like a provision in Sen Borrelli’s similarly intended SB1024, this bill revised DHS inspection protocols. Currently DHS is required to give substantial notice before an inspection. This bill rephrases the passage to read “during normal business hours.” Despite having a popular Republican sponsor who is also a noted prohibitionist, expect this one to be shot down before it leaves the Senate though it is already assigned for a hearing in committee. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <50%

1282 (Mendez-D, LD26) One of the hardest working and least appreciated cannabis reformers in the state legislator, Mendez has filed at least a dozen cannabis bills since he first took office. Among others Mendez filed the second bill to tax and regulate cannabis in 2015. Usually his bills get ignored, except when conservative legislators take an idea of his and file it as their own. This time however, the situation is slightly reversed, with Mendez taking the concept of a bare bones testing bill from Borrelli and putting his own twist on it. Lovely man, great idea, very unlikely to succeed. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <25%

1284 (Mendez-D, LD26) Similar to the bipartisan HB2404 defelonization bill drafted by Engel (D-LD10), sponsored by Payne (R-LD21) this bill makes possession of less than one ounce a civil offense w a $50 fine (less than Payne’s bill), then defaults to state statute (which means class 6 felony charges). The bill has a wealth of Ds on board, but no GOP sponsors. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <25%

1286 (Gowan-R, LD14) For rural patients, this bill could literally be a gamechanger. Without going too far astray here, the background you need to know is that DHS divided the state into 126 service areas called CHAAs (Community Health Assessment Areas). Each CHAA has 1 dispensary for every 10 pharmacies. Currently rural dispensaries can relocate to a suitably zoned urban location after three years of operating in their original location. DHS wrote this option into the rules to incentivize dispensaries locating in rural areas around the state.

So far more than two dozen have taken the option, abandoning their rural patients and reopening grow rights for the area, which often feeds into the state’s “gray market” (“Gray Market” is when MMJ patients or growers divert their allotted cannabis to unauthorized users.) The difference between market potential for a rural or an urban dispensary is stark. Urban dispensaries typically see more than 300 patients per day, with bigger operations serving over 700 per day for “weed holidays” like 4/20 and the day after Thanksgiving. In comparison, most rural dispensaries would love to serve 50 patients in a given day but rarely reach that number. While it is tough to suggest that a business owner needs to stay stuck in a money-losing proposition, the “rural migration” is even tougher on ill patients who not only typically can’t grow their own marijuana plants and are even less likely to be able to make their own concentrates and vape pens.

This bill would change the DHS formula on adding new dispensaries from one that focuses on adding new dispensaries to urban areas with high concentrations of patients, to abandoned rural areas. Expect some push back from the big players in the cities, but since the bill sponsors includes GOP power-players like Borrelli, Gowan and Sen Vince Leach (R-LD11), we can predict the Right will show unified support.   Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <50%

1372 (Navarrete-D, LD30) Sen Navarrete had been part of the ill-fated social justice committee dissolved when Rep David Stringer (R-LD1) got in trouble over racial remarks. A greatly different version of this bill was filed as Rep Kevin Payne’s HB2404, a cannabis possession defelonization bill. Payne protected up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis from felony charges, Navarrete only allows 3.5 grams. Further Payne’s bill appears to entirely legalize paraphernalia, while Navarrete’s only  defelonizes it, leaving paraphernalia possession as a petty offense and appears to not include used paraphernalia. With no Rs as co-sponsors, it’s virtually DOA. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <25%

1379 (Navarrete-D, LD30) Another D-fest, by Navarrete, this retread of Rep Engel’s HB2402, which addresses criminal penalties for vaporizing devices, has been assigned to a committee, but is undoubtful to yield fruit. Current status: assigned, no hearing date set.  Probability of Success: <25%

House

2537 (Friese-D, LD9) FULL DISCLOSURE: AZ-NORML has been working on some version of this testing bill since March of 2017, so we are in favor of this current iteration, led by Dr. Friese and featuring GOP cosponsors, Payne and Tony Rivero (R-LD21). Created by MITA-AZ lobbyist Tory Roberg, this baby has plenty of bells and whistles to love … or to hate depending. Testing, card costs, removal of the disqualifying felony provision, reciprocity, cannabis definition, all ideas loved by liberals. On the other hand, the bill also was filed w a provision to cut caregiver plant allotment per patient from 12 to 6 (SEE MORE on this in the Updates section below). Compared to other MJ efforts among this year’s bumper crop of legislative MJ ideas, this bill has done the best job of following traditional protocols with multiple stakeholder meetings both before and after filing, bipartisan support and conscious transparency and coalition building.

On the other hand, in a year where MMJ Testing has become the flavor of the month, legislatively speaking, this bill will have to hack its way through a lot of competition. At one point there were five different testing efforts in the works. So far, only one other bill is filed, Borrelli’s SB1137, which covers the same territory, but tries to send the testing process to the Ag Dept., an idea that effectively killed industry support for his 2018 testing bill, SB1420.  Current status: NOT assigned to committee.  Probability of Success: <50%

2554 (Powers-Hannley-D, LD9) Rep Pam Powers-Hannley actually crafted the first legislation to correct the AZ concentrates crisis in the 2018 legislative session before the Jones Case drove attention to the issue. This bill, a further refinement of last year’s HB2630, redefines cannabis in state criminal statute as marijuana, removes cannabis for the list of class four felony narcotics and identifies all products made from marijuana as marijuana. (Novel idea, huh?) Powers-Hannley was actually in the process of gathering signatures for her bill when Rivero got his concentrates bill, HB2149, filed. Current status: NOT assigned to committee. Probability of Success: <25%

2555 (Powers-Hannley-D, LD9) Yet a 3rd effort to defelonize minor cannabis possession. Powers-Hannley sets the bar at one ounce and stacks on the co-sponsors (a whopping 17!). Unlike Navarrete’s SB1372 or Payne’s HB2404, this bill does not address paraphernalia. We’d love to see it advance, but since it hasn’t even been assigned a committee, I’m not holding my toke.  Current status: NOT assigned to committee.  Probability of Success: <25%

Updates

In the interest of our occasional pursuit of brevity, rather than recap the entire list of 17 bills from opening week, we encourage you to read this description of the bills from our earlier article. Here are updates on individual bills that have seen progress.

1003, Borrelli (Accelerates hemp program) Passed in the Senate Water and Agriculture committee and approved in both parties’ caucuses. This one’s is on the march.

1024, Borrelli (Revenue reporting bill) Passed in the Senate Finance committee and approved in both parties’ caucuses.

1137 Borrelli (Testing bill) Passed in the Senate Water and Agriculture committee and approved in both parties’ caucuses.

1138 Borrelli (Card cost bill) Passed in the Health and Human Services committee Feb 7.

1222 Boyer (Dispensary inspection) Will be heard in the Senate Health Committee Feb 6.

2537 Friese (Testing and other amendments) After facing backlash over proposed cuts in patient allowed plant counts, sponsor Friese and Roberg (MITA lobbyist) held a follow-up stakeholder meeting on the caregiver provisions and are drafting an amendment to not cut plant cuts but instead to create more complete rules for caregivers in hopes of protecting patient access and reduce Grey Market BS.

Still 3 testing bills in the works. Last day to file bills is Feb 11. We will be there.