Inconsistent regulations getting puff, puff, passed

Illustration by Katie Dobrydney

Many Arizonans seek more clarity and consistency regarding cannabis legislation, as confusion surrounding the drug’s legality becomes increasingly prominent. Throughout legislative changes regarding the legality of marijuana, experts encourage the public to stay up to date on federal and state laws.

With several nearby states legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Arizonans speculate that full legality might be coming soon. Medical marijuana has been legal in Arizona since 2010, and with regulations of the drug for medicinal purposes constantly changing, Flagstaff resident Nicole Urbowicz said she thinks the state legislature doesn’t have people’s best interest in mind.

“I think [the government] is just trying to get people in trouble,” Urbowicz said. “Or, they’re just trying to see if people actually follow through with enforcing and following their laws.”

NAU Police Department officer Breana Rintala said inconsistencies in cannabis laws and regulations stem from a lack of complete understanding for how the drug affects human behavior and performance. Rintala said the constant changes are confusing for both Arizona civilians and law enforcement. She also said even more confusion and instability accumulates when comparing laws in different states.

“We’re hoping these laws will all catch up and be on the same page,” Rintala said. “It’s tricky for people possessing it because they might be told one thing in Colorado and something different in Arizona.”

According to an article in the Arizona Capitol Times, a proposal to add concentrates, edibles and resin to the list of medically legal cannabis products was rejected by the Arizona House of Representatives March 21. Failure to include these products in the language of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act has brought their legality into question and exemplifies how cannabis laws are not only constantly changing in the state but are also highly specific and difficult to interpret.

While Arizona residents are encouraged by law enforcement to stay informed about these regulatory changes, medical marijuana dispensaries are responsible for staying one step ahead of the legislature and anticipating changes that are likely to occur. Douglas Daly, the attorney and general counsel for Greenhouse of Flagstaff, said it’s crucial for dispensaries like Greenhouse to adhere to state ordinances — a task that has grown increasingly difficult due to ever-changing regulations.

Rintala said that because marijuana is a versatile plant and its uses and applications vary widely, members of the public are generally confused about laws regarding the substance. Regardless, Rintala said NAU students must adhere to federal laws as well as the university’s Student Code of Conduct when on campus. She said the code of conduct might introduce an additional layer of confusion for students as its rules differ from Arizona laws.

“It will be tricky if marijuana becomes recreationally legal in Arizona, because having marijuana on campus would still be a university Code of Conduct violation,” Rintala said.

Rintala urged students to read the Code of Conduct in order to avoid penalties due to a misunderstanding. She also said it’s important for Arizona residents as a whole to know what laws are currently in place so they can also maintain lawfulness.

“Another misconception might be that you can’t actually get a DUI from having THC in your system,” Rintala said. “You can actually get a DUI with any amount of THC in your system.”

According to Rintala, educating the public on the realities of common misconceptions regarding marijuana legality is paramount in keeping people out of prison. She warned students against incurring serious legal charges related to cannabis use, as doing so could greatly affect the future success of their careers.

“The major thing we are learning now and are trying to let students know is that if they smoke marijuana wax, they might be out of a job seven years from now,” Rintala said. “Young people are often unaware of that. Let’s say someone smokes wax in their freshman year of college and ends up wanting to be a police officer. Now they can’t, because they’re stuck with a decision that’s seven years old.”

Long-term consequences of misunderstandings like these prompt citizens to push for greater clarity and consistency within the law. Daly said lawmakers need to understand how confusing cannabis legislation has become and how it’s affecting peoples’ lives in a negative way.

“There are people using marijuana to get off of opioids,” Daly said. “There are people who have really chronic conditions. If legislators took the time to better understand medical marijuana, they could make more educated decisions.”

Daly said it’s important for the government to understand that marijuana is not criminal when used medicinally and that dispensaries aren’t inherently bad — many are there to help people. He also said dispensaries actually help lessen crime, contrary to what some people might think, because they suppress black market sales of marijuana in the communities where they are built.

“I think it’s better to regulate it than to allow for black market transactions to be made,” Daly said. “Regulating and taxing marijuana could be a far better and safer system.”

Urbowicz said legalization might happen sooner than some expect, because people seem to be gradually realizing that regulation might actually be safer and more economically feasible than prohibition.

“As young people begin to vote more, they’re going to have more of an opinion on marijuana than older generations did,” Urbowicz said. “They want different things for different reasons. I think it should become legal because we can get a lot of tax money from it.”

If Arizona does end up legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Daly said data from other legalized states could show what legalization might look like. Concerns for surges in underage use and instances of intoxicated driving can be assessed comparatively with statistics from nearby states.

Rintala said that if full legalization were to happen, there might be additional confusion among the public regarding when and where it’s okay to toke up.

“I think with legalization, you could see a lot of people get DUIs,” Rintala said. “We’ll have to make sure people know that they still can’t be driving under the influence of marijuana. I think there’s a lot of different consequences with legalization, and that’s probably why the government is taking so long to figure out exactly what to do with it.”

Regardless of whether marijuana becomes recreationally legal in Arizona, experts encourage citizens to develop a complete understanding of the laws affecting their area so they can ensure their lives won’t be hindered by misunderstanding. Arizona residents can visit the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ website to find out more about cannabis legality in their area.