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Arizona Lawmakers Dismantle Proposition 200


May-June 1997

Lawmakers in Arizona passed three bills during the recently concluded legislative session that significantly altered Proposition 200, which was approved by voters by a 2-1 ratio in November 1996 ("Major Issues 1997; Legislative Summary, 43rd Legislature, 1st Regular Session," Arizona Senate Research Staff, 1997).


Under Proposition 200 (Sections 8 and 9), an estimated 1,000 nonviolent drug offenders were to be granted the possibility of parole if approved by the state's Board of Executive Clemency. On March 6, Arizona Governor Fife Symington (R) signed an emergency bill (H.B. 2475), changing the standard established by Proposition 200 that the Board is to use to determine parole eligibility for a prisoner convicted of personal possession or use of illicit drugs. Instead of determining whether the prisoner would be a danger to the public, the Board is to determine if there is a substantial probability that, if released, the prisoner will not violate the law and whether the release is in the best interest of the state. The bill also excluded from parole those serving time for other crimes and those with previous felony convictions from the new law. It is estimated that only about 200 prisoners may now be eligible for parole. A prisoner may not appeal the Board's decision.


The Arizona Senate passed a bill (S.B. 1373) on April 8 that eliminates the provision of Proposition 200 (Section 10 (E)) that prohibited incarceration for defendants who violate probation for a first-time offense of drug use or possession. In addition, the bill allows counties to establish drug courts for drug use and possession offenders. Defendants may not participate in a drug court program if they have been convicted of any violent or sexual offense; have previously participated in, or refused to participate in, a drug diversion program; have failed to complete a drug diversion program once enrolled; or has been enrolled in a drug court program. Drug court probation may include fines, incarceration, or any conditions the court deems appropriate. The bill was signed by Governor Symington on April 15.


On April 21, Symington signed a bill (H.B. 2518) to alter provisions of Proposition 200 (Sections 6 and 7) that had allowed doctors to prescribe Schedule I drugs, such as marijuana, heroin, or LSD to treat critically ill patients if two licensed physicians agree on the treatment and offer supporting research. The bill suspends enactment of the provisions until the FDA approves the drugs for medical use. Because FDA approval of these drugs could take years, supporters of the proposition 200 say legislators have effectively neutralized this provision of the new law. (Hal Mattern and Kris Mayes, "Legislators Approve Delaying Prop 200, Court Battle Likely Over Pot Law," Arizona Republic, April 16, 1997, p. A1; Tim Golden, "Medical Use of Marijuana To Stay Illegal in Arizona," New York Times, April 17, 1997, p. A14; "Arizona Lawmakers Neutralize State Medical Marijuana Ballot," Drug Enforcement Report, April 23, 1997, p. 1)


"They are repealing the initiative before it has even had a chance to take effect," said Sam Vagenas, a political consultant who helped lead the initiative campaign. "This is the ultimate act of political arrogance by the Legislature," said Vagenas. "It is a callous disregard of the will of the voters." Proposition 200 supporters are targeting for defeat lawmakers who voted to change Proposition 200. "We believe voters will pay them back in 1998," Vagenas said. Vagenas served as spokesman for Arizonans for Drug Policy Reform, the group that campaigned for Proposition 200 which has been renamed The People Have Spoken.

The People Have Spoken plan to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Legislature's alterations of Proposition 200, said Vagenas. Furthermore, the group took out a referendum petition to bar lawmakers from altering voter initiatives for two years after they are passed. They are also preparing referendum petitions to lift the restrictions placed on Proposition 200 by H.B. 2518 and H.B. 1373. If 56,481 registered voters sign the petitions by July 20, changes to Proposition 200 will be delayed until the referendum is voted on in the November 1998 general election. S.B. 2475 has already taken effect and is not subject to The People Have Spoken's referendum (Mike McCloy, "Petitions Target Limits on Pot Law; Backers Regroup, Seek to Undo Changes," The Arizona Republic, April 25, 1997, p. B1).

Lawmakers who supported altering the medical marijuana provision of Proposition 200 said they were simply following federal law, which they claim requires FDA approval before drugs can be prescribed by doctors. Senator John Kaites (R-Glendale) said, "I think people understood that there is a process drugs must go through for approval for medical use, even though it wasn't specified in the proposition." Lawmakers expressed concerns that voters may not have intended to approve the medical use of drugs such as heroin, LSD and PCP, claiming that polls show that not all people who voted for Proposition 200 endorsed every aspect of it. "Bear in mind that when it comes to initiatives, there are ambiguities," said Senate Majority Leader Marc Spitzer (R-Phoenix). "We have to protect the health, welfare and safety of people in this state."

Senator Pete Rios (D-Dudleyville) said his fellow senators are trying to second-guess voters. "It seems that we are saying to the voters that you're real smart when you vote for us, but we don't trust your judgment when it comes to voting on other important issues; therefore, we will change what you voted for," Rios said.

Arizona State Senate Research Staff - (602) 542-3171.

The People Have Spoken - (602) 941-6814.