Fourth Avenue Street Fair in Tucson, Arizona, March 2009. (Photo: Sunfrog1)
The beleaguered state of Arizona has just concluded one of the most lopsided elections in state history, in which Republicans captured every statewide office, seven of ten Congressional seats, and three-quarter supermajorities in both legislative bodies. Conservatives took most of the local and municipal seats as well, and voters passed ballot initiatives prohibiting affirmative action, allowing secret ballots in workplace elections (to hamper union organizing), and challenging coverage-mandate aspects of the recently passed federal health care bill.
Despite this resoundingly ideological state sweep, there were still a number of surprisingly progressive results. Voters soundly rejected an NRA-backed proposition to make hunting a constitutional right – the only state to do so in this election cycle, where similar measures passed in South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. Also rejected was a provision that would have allowed state trust land to be sold in the service of "protecting" military bases, as well as one that would have transferred over $100 million from a land conservation fund to the state's general fund. And overwhelmingly rejected (by 70 percent of the voters) was a measure that would have ended an early childhood services program and transferred its $300 million in revenues to the general fund.
Most surprisingly, with the narrow passage of Proposition 203, Arizona became the 15th state to adopt a medical marijuana law. The measure was trailing in the tally following election day, began gaining ground as provisional and mail-in ballots were counted and finally surged ahead ten days after the election to ultimately prevail by about 4,000 votes out of almost 1.7 million ballots cast. Prop 203 was unique in Arizona's midterms in that it was the only citizen-referred initiative on the 2010 ballot; all of the others were referred directly by the Republican-dominated state legislature. The initiative garnered more than 250,000 petition signatures to get on the ballot, a total exceeding the required number by more than 100,000. It passed despite being opposed by law enforcement, the state's top-ranked officials and both U.S. Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl.
Opponents of Prop 203 advanced arguments about morality and legality reminiscent of the "reefer madness" propaganda of the 1930s, arguing that the measure would essentially be a "gateway" provision toward the full-on legalization of marijuana (and potentially even all drugs) in the future. "Marijuana for medical treatment is the foot in the door for legalization," Kyl said at a news conference in October. Despite, or perhaps in anticipation of, such predictions, the proposition was narrowly drafted to require a doctor's recommendation for patients with serious or debilitating conditions and requires user registration with the state Department of Health as well as fingerprinting and licensure for dispensaries (which are to be capped statewide at 124). Further, employers will not be allowed to discriminate against or terminate registered users, but workers will be prohibited from being on the medicine during performance of their jobs.
Arizona's history with medical marijuana actually dates back to 1996, when voters approved it by 65 percent only to have it eviscerated by the state legislature. This setback led to a 1998 ballot initiative that prohibited the legislature from overturning voter-approved propositions; in that same year, voters also rejected a legislative-sponsored provision that would have required Congress or the federal government to approve medical marijuana before a doctor could prescribe it. Despite this support, the medical marijuana initiatives were not implemented because some of the language they contained conflicted with federal laws and enforcement policies. In 2002, a more sweeping decriminalization measure failed. It would have required the state to dispense medical marijuana to patients for free and – perhaps most problematically in terms of the propaganda debate – would have required state law enforcement officers to deliver it to users.
Another key aspect of the politics of marijuana concerns the larger border issues that Arizona has become synonymous with in recent years. In addition to human border crossers, the transportation of marijuana from Mexico is responsible for many political and economic tensions in the region. For the drug cartels that have become an increasing source of violence (predominantly on the Mexican side of the border), marijuana trafficking is a primary enterprise. As a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent recently told the New York Times, "marijuana is the king crop. It consistently sustains its marketability and profitability." A 2008 Congressional report further observed that "there is evidence that Mexican cartels are also increasing their relationships with prison and street gangs in the United States in order to facilitate drug trafficking." Border militarization and anti-immigration demagogues in Arizona and elsewhere often allude to these impacts to justify their positions.
Supporters of measures such as Arizona's Prop 203 argue primarily for medical marijuana's humane and therapeutic benefits to ailing people. We can extend the point further to consider the humane benefits it could offer to society as a whole if it can be partially decriminalized and we relax the aggressive enforcement of prohibition laws. Exploding prison populations and expanding cartel violence are both enabled by current policies. Prohibition supports the profit motive that drives drug trafficking and the related practice of human smuggling, and further fuels the displacement of people from Mexican villages that contributes to so-called "illegal immigration." The utilization of marijuana for medical purposes may well be, as opponents contend, a step on the road to legalization – and if so, this actually could become part of a process of healing beyond merely personal ailments.
In this sense, liberalization of marijuana laws could address a number of deep historical rifts, ones that are especially prominent in the Southwest and that continue to influence our border politics today. Cannabis historian Ernest L. Abel has reflected on this history of ostensible "Reefer Racism":
"When the 1930s devastated the American economy, the Mexicans bore the brunt of the scapegoat mentality in the southwest. Everything about them was abhorrent to many Americans, and there was a general hew and cry to kick them out of the country. Harassment was commonplace. The Mexicans were censured for almost everything they did or failed to do, including smoking marijuana. Marijuana, in fact, became the pretext for vexing the Mexicans just as opium had been the pretext for vexing the Chinese years before … . As the numbers of Mexican immigrants began to increase, especially in the border towns of the southwest, they were the object of close scrutiny by the townsfolk. Suspicious and often resentful of these newcomers, the townspeople humiliated, harassed, and abused them to make them feel as unwelcome as possible. When the Mexicans lashed back at their tormentors, their actions were often attributed to the influence of marijuana, which to many Americans symbolized the Mexican presence in America … . As the most conspicuous users of marijuana, Mexicans were oftentimes accused of being incited to violence by the drug … . The Mexicans were accused of spreading the marijuana vice throughout the nation … . When they began to resist efforts to jail and deport them, their resistance was attributed to the influence of marijuana and these charges lent further weight to the accusation that marijuana incited violence."
This intertwining history of marijuana prohibition and the demonization of Mexican immigrants in the Southwest includes recent incantations deployed for sensationalistic political purposes – prominently reflected, for example, in Governor Jan Brewer's imprudent campaign rhetoric:
"Well, we all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now become drug mules. They're coming across our borders in huge numbers. The drug cartels have taken control of the immigration … . So they are criminals. They're breaking the law when they are trespassing and they're criminals when they pack the marijuana and the drugs on their backs … . I believe today and in the circumstances that we are facing, that the majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming in the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels, and they are bringing drugs in."
Intriguingly, Arizona voters have approved a compassionate and progressive marijuana law at precisely the same time that openly hostile anti-immigrant forces in the state have consolidated their political power in an unprecedented manner. We might surmise that the state's libertarian bent contributed to the passage of Prop 203, yet perhaps there is also a deeper motivation at work here. Incendiary sentiments such as Governor Brewer's provide a potential subtext for Arizona's incongruous liberalization of marijuana laws: Perhaps in approving the medicinal application of marijuana to debilitating physical conditions, the Arizona electorate is expressing a desire to ameliorate the destructive societal ills in our midst as well. One can only wonder whether medical marijuana can further buffer the chronic pain of the political challenges that lie ahead.