Arizona Demonstrates How Rolling Out Authorized Marijuana Ought to Be Carried out

Recreational marijuana sales started in Arizona on Friday, Jan. 22, making it the 15th state with broadly legal pot. 

Arizona was one of four states that voted to legalize marijuana during the election last November, with New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana. Arizona is the first to have transitioned to the full implementation of the adult-use retail market, having acted less than two months after the election’s results were certified on November 30. In fact, Arizona set a new record, proving that a state can go from the decision to legalize all the way through the start of legal cannabis sales in a matter of weeks, faster than any other legal state to date.

Within days of the certification of the results, the Arizona Department of Health Services had released rules to guide the state towards legal pot, building upon their experience with medical marijuana. Medical weed was legalized in much the same way as adult-use: in November 2010, voters approved Proposition 203 with 50.1% of the votes—10 years later, Proposition 207, to legalize recreational, passed with 60%, showing a significant improvement of cannabis’ status in the minds of Arizonian voters.

Per the Arizona constitution, the ballot initiative, once it is approved by voters, takes effect immediately after the votes have been certified and approved by the governor without requiring any action from lawmakers. This puts Arizona at an advantage compared to other states, like New Jersey, that had to resort to legislative action to translate the will of the people into law. But there are states where, despite the initiative process making ballot measures binding, state leaders attempt to block the decisions of the voters. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has been fighting against the will of the voters to block the democratically chosen legalization process. Unlike the other states that chose legalization last Election Day, Arizona has demonstrated goodwill from regulators.

Economic Bonus

When medical was introduced in 2010, it had taken Arizona five months to start accepting applications for patients and more than half-a-year to consider applications for dispensaries. These numbers were put to shame this time around: Applications were open to dispensaries on January 19, a month and a half after the voters made their voices heard. 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 made in favor of making a priority out of the application of Proposition 207 is the economic boons expected for it. Instead of dragging their feet and delaying the inevitable, Arizona made the choice to open the market immediately, thus allowing the cannabis industry to start generating revenue—through the usual sales tax, as well as the cannabis-exclusive 16% excise tax that will fund public services—and creating jobs in the middle of the COVID economic slump.

The extraordinary speed that Arizona demonstrated was partially based on the existing infrastructure for medical marijuana; indeed, the first recreational licenses went to medical dispensaries that are already up and running. However, applications for businesses that are not currently operating medical dispensaries are also open, and the Arizona Department of Health Services demonstrated professionalism and efficiency unlike anything the United States had seen prior in rolling out regulations. We can only hope that the remaining states where marijuana remains illegal are watching and taking notes. 

Jean-Gabriel Fernandez

Jan. 29, 2021

9:14 a.m.