Recreational marijuana sales began in Arizona on Friday, January 22nd, making it the 15th state with a largely legal pot.
Arizona was one of four states that joined New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana to vote to legalize marijuana in last November’s elections. Arizona becomes the first country to switch to full implementation of the adult retail market after trading less than two months after the November 30 election results were confirmed. In fact, Arizona set a new record, proving that a state can go from deciding to legalize all the way to starting legal cannabis sales in a matter of weeks, faster than any other rule of law state to date.
Within days of certifying the results, the Arizona Department of Health had published rules designed to move the state to the legal pot based on their experience with medical marijuana. Medical weed was legalized in the same way as adult use: In November 2010, voters approved Proposition 203 with 50.1% of the vote – 10 years later, Proposition 207, legalizing recreational activities, was passed with 60%, showing a significant improvement of cannabis status in the minds of Arizona voters.
According to the Arizona Constitution, once the election initiative is approved by voters, it takes effect immediately after the votes are confirmed and approved by the governor, with no action from the legislature. This gives Arizona an edge over other states like New Jersey, which had to take legislative action to translate the will of the people into law. But there are states in which heads of state try to block the voters’ decisions despite the binding initiative process. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has fought against the will of voters to block the democratically elected legalization process. Unlike the other states that voted to legalize it on last election day, Arizona has shown goodwill from regulators.
When Medical was launched in 2010, it took Arizona five months to take patient applications and more than half a year to review pharmacy applications. These numbers were shamed this time: on January 19, a month and a half after the voters had heard their vote, the applications for the pharmacies were open. Just three days later, the Associated Press reported that 86 licenses had already been approved, covering nine of the state’s 15 counties.
One argument in favor of prioritizing the application of Proposition 207 is the expected economic benefits. Rather than dragging their feet and delaying the inevitable, Arizona chose to open the market immediately to allow the cannabis industry to generate revenue – through the usual sales tax as well as the exclusive 16% cannabis excise tax that is funded by public services – and job creation in the midst of the economic slump of COVID.
The extraordinary speed Arizona demonstrated was due in part to the existing medical marijuana infrastructure; In fact, the first recreational licenses went to existing medical pharmacies. However, there are also applications open for companies that do not currently operate medical pharmacies, and the Arizona Department of Health has demonstrated professionalism and efficiency unlike anything the US had seen before in regulatory enforcement. We can only hope that the remaining states where marijuana remains illegal will watch and take notes.
January 29, 2021