Recreational marijuana has a place in Flagstaff

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Even with state regulations already in place for the legalization of recreational marijuana throughout Arizona, officials in Flagstaff are carefully weighing the option of an additional city ordinance regarding its distribution and use. 

The passage of Proposition 207, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, in November 2020 elections signified the majority of Arizona residents wanted marijuana legalized. A recent presentation by Flagstaff City Council illustrated 65% of Coconino County voters approved the referendum for “the responsible adult use of marijuana should be legal for persons 21 years of age or older, subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance.”

A 16% tax on the sale of recreational marijuana, along with fees for the cultivation, distribution and use of the drug, will be placed in a fund that will help local communities annually with a 33% contribution to community colleges and 31.4% going to local police and fire departments, according to the Arizona state legislature’s fiscal analysis.

“The act decriminalizes the use and possession of up to one ounce of recreational marijuana by a person who is at least 21 years of age. Individuals who are at least 21 years of age can also legally grow and possess up to six marijuana plants, but no more than 12 plants can be grown at a single residence and cultivation must take place in an enclosed, secure area not visible from public view,” according to the Jan. 12 city council meeting executive summary.  

There is currently a backlog of cases at the prosecutor’s office in Flagstaff, and further regulation of recreational marijuana use in the city would undoubtedly add to the caseload stretching thin the already overwhelmed court system, councilmember Adam Shimoni said in a phone interview.

“My hope is to see the city of Flagstaff move forward in a way that doesn’t add unnecessarily to this backlog when addressing recreational marijuana use,” Shimoni said. “Arizona voters passed this proposition with the intent to use recreational marijuana and not punish people for taking part. Adding unnecessary fines and penalties will move us in the wrong direction. We have the benefit of not being the first in the nation to pass recreational use, and looking to states that already have has shown that many of the fears expressed were never realized.”

The act does prohibit use of marijuana in public spaces, but Shimoni said the question is whether this implies to all places accessible by the public, which seems excessive.

However, councilmember Jim McCarthy explained in a phone interview that the reasoning behind a city ordinance is necessary, even with laws already in place.

“A lot of times these things that are written by citizen initiative aren’t gone over with a fine-tooth comb by lawyers and stuff, so there’s little things missing,” McCarthy said. “So, the city will put those in our code just so we can enforce the existing rule, not to make new rules, but just to enforce the things that are already in the initiative.”

There are currently 86 licenses for the distribution of recreational marijuana throughout the state with three of those locations in Flagstaff, according to a list from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Aside from local and state governments gaining financially from the taxation of recreational marijuana, Shimoni also talked about the possibility of establishing testing labs in Flagstaff and described it as a potentially great means of economic growth for the local economy. Both McCarthy and Shimoni said they are not opposed to the establishment of such facilities and additional points of sale.

Sgt. Charles Hernandez II, public relations officer for the Flagstaff Police Department (FPD), spoke via Zoom about the illegal sale of marijuana by private growers and how violations of that law could impact the proposed tax revenue.  

“I think the homegrown people who may be distributing at the street level may be of concern because it disincentivizes the tax revenue that the law or the proposition was predicated on,” Hernandez said. “It was sold on generating tons of revenue being legal from a tax base, and if now we have individual growers distributing it, evading those tax revenues, we see some sort of disincentive from the distribution and enactment of the law.”

Another concern is people driving after using marijuana legally, even though the same principles apply as with driving under the influence of alcohol. Steps are being taken on the part of FPD to improve training for officers in the detection and testing of marijuana usage.

“We have changed our process as far as DUI enforcement in training officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug impairment,” Hernandez said. “We do ARIDE, which is the Advanced Roadside Impairment Detection Expert, and then we have DRE’s, which are the Drug Recognition Experts. Those two classes will help the officers become better aware in recognizing what possible drugs are apparent leading to the impairment of the individual.”

Answers to frequently asked questions about growing, selling and consuming recreational marijuana can be found here.