PHOENIX -- Saying the state needs the cash, a first-term Tucson Republican lawmaker wants to legalize marijuana -- and do it before it ends up on the 2016 ballot.
Ethan Orr said he believes a Colorado-style law here could generate upwards of $250 million a year in tax revenues. He said the state, heading into a budget deficit, needs the cash.
But Orr said there's another reason for lawmakers to act: a proposed 2016 ballot measure.
He said if that is passed, it is virtually impossible to make changes if it turns out there are problems. By contrast, Orr said anything approved by the Legislature can be amended by the Legislature.
The proposal drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, who is also running in the same legislative district. She said the timing -- a month before the general election -- is suspicious as she, Orr and Democrat Randy Friese face off for the two available seats.
But this isn't Orr's first foray into the issue of marijuana.
Last session he sponsored legislation designed to allow the use of state dollars, obtained from medical marijuana users and dispensaries, to study the effects of the drug. That measure was approved by the House but killed in the Senate.
Timing aside, Steele said that, as a substance abuse counselor, she cannot support anything that has the possibility of making marijuana more easily available to teens, even if the law were designed to limit its purchase to adults.
The proposal is getting a decidedly chilly reception from Republican gubernatorial hopeful Doug Ducey who would be in a position to sign or veto the bill if it ever got to his desk.
"As the father of three boys and the son of a cop, he thinks it's a bad idea,'' said spokeswoman Melissa DeLaney.
But Democrat Fred DuVal appears open to the idea -- but just not yet.
"Fred wants to wait and see what happens with the states that already moved to legalize recreational marijuana,'' said Geoff Vetter, his press aide. "There's a lot of things we're still learning and Fred wants to discover all the consequences of legalization before moving in that direction.''
But the Marijuana Policy Project, which got voters in 2010 to approve a medical marijuana law, is not about to drop its plans for 2016.
Chris Lindsey, the group's legislative analyst, said Orr's proposal is "not surprising'' given what he said has been the success of legalization in Colorado.
"We applaud Rep. Orr for taking a stand for a more sensible law,'' Lindsey said. But simply introducing a bill is far from a guarantee of getting a hearing, much less the measure making its way onto the books.
"For the time being, while we wish the representative and his legislation every success, our plans to place a measure before voters in 2016 has not changed,'' Lindsey said.
Orr's plan is a direct extension of that 2010 initiative when voters decided that those with certain medical conditions and a doctor's recommendation could purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from state-regulated dispensaries.
Since that time the state's finances have deteriorated.
The current projection is Arizona will end this budget year $520 million in the red if lawmakers have to reset state aid to schools to where it would have been had they not ignored for several years a requirement to consider inflation. And for the coming year the deficit is projected to exceed $1 billion.
Orr said the experience in Colorado shows legalization can work.
"All of the apocalyptic predictions made have not come true,'' he said.
"You have not seen an increase in the hardcore drug usage of things like heroin and cocaine,'' Orr said, or any increase in arrests for disorderly conduct. "But what you have seen is an increase in tax revenue.''
Potentially more significant, Orr said, is the chance that the 2016 initiative might pass.
He said this means Arizona law will be crafted not after careful consideration and debate by lawmakers but instead go to voters as a take-it-or-leave-it plan. Worse yet, Orr said, is the Arizona Constitution precludes virtually any change by lawmakers in voter-approved measures even if problems develop.
"This is going to happen,'' he said.
"Is it going to happen in an intelligent way because my colleagues chose to act like leaders and do what was right for the state?'' Orr continued. "I guess another way of putting it (is), are we going to govern or are we going to be governed by the initiative process?''
"I don't think we should have it either way,'' responded Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. "We don't need another highly addictive substance available to adults or adolescents.''
LaWall acknowledged that what Orr is proposing would be only for adults. But she said its greater availability will make it more accessible to teens.
"Research shows it has a devastating and damaging impact on developing brains and can lead to life-long addiction,'' she said. "Among other risks, marijuana impairs thinking, leads to poor educational outcomes and lowered IQ, and increases a teen's likelihood of dropping out of school.''
And LaWall said even assuming marijuana sales could be limited to adults, legalization sends the message that it's use is somehow OK.
Steele said Colorado residents are having second thoughts. In a poll last month by Suffolk University and USA today, about half of residents surveyed said they are not happy with the law and how it is being implemented.
"And in Colorado, we're seeing since this has happened, that the use of marijuana among teenagers is 39 percent higher than the national average,'' Steele said.
But another report raises the question of whether any of this is related to the 2012 law.
A report released by Healthy Kids Colorado found that in 2013, the first full year the drug was legal for adults, 20 percent of high schoolers admitted using marijuana in the prior month and 37 percent said they had used it at some point in their lives.
By contrast, the 2011 survey found 22 percent who admitted to use in the prior month and 39 percent to sampling it.
But along the lines of LaWall's concern of acceptance, the same survey said the percentage of students who perceive a moderate or great risk from marijuana use declined from 58 percent in 2011 to 54 percent two years later.
Steele said her concern is for those children.
"I do think that adults have the right to make that decision,'' she said.
"But I'm a substance abuse counselor,'' Steele continued. "And I have dealt with so many people who started their drug and alcohol addiction in their teenage years, starting at 11 and 12.''
Orr said he has never used marijuana. And he agrees that, at least for teens, the drug should remain off limits for recreational use.
"In high school I saw it fundamentally destroyed some of my friends' lives,'' Orr said, who started with marijuana and, having decided that illegal drug use is OK, moved on to other substances.
This isn't the first foray by lawmakers into the area of legalizing -- or at least decriminalizing -- marijuana for recreational use.
John Fillmore, then a Republican representative from Apache Junction, tried in 2011 to make possession of up to two ounces a fine of no more than $200. When that failed, he tried a scaled-back measure the following year, with a $500 fine for possession of up to an ounce.
That also failed.
Just this past session Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, tried total legalization and recreation but could not get a hearing for his measure.