Prop 205 to legalize recreational marijuana use too close to call

A banner hangs on the wall at the Crescent Ballroom in support of Proposition 205. The venue is hosting a watch party for the campaign, Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, and other supporters of Prop 205. (Photo by Bri Cossavella/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Proposition 205 to legalize recreational marijuana use for Arizona adults was too close to call Tuesday night, with “no” votes getting about a five percent edge.

If the initiative fails, it will be the second time in 14 years Arizona voters have rejected a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana.

If it passes, Arizona will join four states that previously legalized recreational marijuana use. Another four states, in addition to Arizona, had similar measures on Tuesday’s ballot. California, Massachusetts and Nevada approved the measures but the outlook in Maine was still undetermined.

At the Yes on Prop 205 watch party, Adam Kinsey, campaign leader for Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, told supporters the measure would need 55 percent of remaining votes to pass. He expected final numbers wouldn’t be available for another day or two.

In the meantime, recreational marijuana use remains illegal in Arizona, which means users can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the amount. Fines for marijuana possession or cultivation can be as high as $150,000, with jail time anywhere from six months to 10 years.

The last time recreational marijuana legalization appeared on the Arizona ballot was in 2002, when 57 percent voted against the measure.

Leading up to the 2016 election, the Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News polls showed Arizona’s registered voters split on whether the Prop 205 should pass.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ardently opposed the ballot initiative in a September speech in Washington, D.C., calling the issue “a battle for the minds and future of our children’s lives.”

The anti-Prop 205 group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy produced a series of political ads in the weeks leading up to Election Day, many of them featuring former Colorado politicians and school officials. The Colorado marijuana legislation included language requiring the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue each year to go to Colorado public schools, but officials featured in the ads called these “empty words.” In one ad, former Denver mayor Wellington Webb said the money “is going to regulation and the pot industry instead.”

But last week, three Colorado elected officials sent a letter to the anti-205 group, calling the ads “inaccurate and misleading.” State Sen. Pat Steadman and Reps. Jonathan Singer and Millie Hamner, all Democrats, said nearly $140 million went to the Colorado Department of Education in the past two fiscal years, an amount they say came from about $220.8 million in marijuana tax revenue during that period.

Before Tuesday’s election, 23 states plus Washington D.C. had legalized medical marijuana, 11 of those by ballot initiative. Arizona said “yes” to the medical marijuana question in 2010, when Proposition 203 passed by less than half a percentage point. The law requires qualifying patients to have medical marijuana cards and places nonprofit dispensaries under the oversight of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington approved measures to legalize recreational marijuana for adults by about a 10 percent margin in both states, according to Ballotpedia. Alaska and Oregon followed suit in 2014.

Both recreational and medical marijuana are still illegal under federal law. The federal government classifies marijuana as Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it’s considered an illegal drug with a high potential for abuse. In addition, the U.S. government recognizes no acceptable medical use for marijuana.