Tucson, Arizona-based arts, culture and music celebration HOCO Fest is all about local music and arts usually, but this year the festival took on more: cannabis policy.
“Any way that we can make sure that people are able to have a body autonomy and make safe decisions about what they put in their bodies without the fear of punishment I think is a great idea,” says Stacey Cope, program director of Sonoran Prevention Works, a harm reduction nonprofit based in Southern Arizona.
Cope was one of four panelists invited to speak at HOCO Fest’s Cannabis Legalization 2020 forum held Saturday, Aug. 31 in downtown Tucson. The panel gathered industry and policy professionals from across Arizona to weigh in on the most recent ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state.
Right now, Arizona law allows adults over 18 — and children with a guardian’s consent — to consume marijuana only with a prescription from a licensed physician. If the latest initiative makes it to the 2020 ballot and passes, it would legalize possession, consumption, cultivation and sale of marijuana for adults 18 and over.
For Mikel Weisser, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, legalization extends far beyond recreational use.
It’s about protecting families and professionals.
“As a person who deals with policy at the state level, this has protections for parenting rights. Currently, in dependency court, they can take your kids because somebody thought they smelled the odor of weed and you didn’t present well (in court),” Weisser says. “It puts an end to professionals who can lose their licenses, like teachers, dentists — people who have to get state certified.”
But Cope says she wants to see the legalization effort extend beyond legislation. She wants to see a change in the industry itself, which is widely dominated by white business owners.
Less than 20 percent of industry leaders identify as people of color, according to a 2017 survey of cannabis-related business owners by Marijuana Business Daily. however, people of color have felt the decades-long impact of criminalization in their communities.
A report published in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union found that people of color, particularly black men, are incarcerated for marijuana possession at a much higher rate compared to their white counterparts.
Despite similar rates of marijuana consumption, the ACLU found black Americans were three times as likely to be arrested than whites in 2010.
“Currently, it’s white men who lead the industry, and that’s not who’s been directly impacted by cannabis laws,” Cope says. “So, if we are not going to ensure that people of color are leaders of this industry, then legalizing cannabis is just another form of white supremacy.”
(From left) Mikel Weisser, executive director of Arizona National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; William Elliott, chief operations officer of Earth’s Healing; John Hartsell, owner of DIZPOT; and Nick Meyers, panel moderator, at the Legalization 2020 panel at HOCO Fest 2019 in Tucson, Arizona on Aug. 31, 2019.
For Jesús Rey Martín León, racial disparities in marijuana policy and policing are all too real. León, also known as by his artist name REY, is one part of the Tucson-based artist collective, Ojalá Systems, which took the stage twice during HOCO Fest’s three-day event.
Ask any artist in Ojalá Systems about marijuana legislation, and you’re sure to hear something similar. For many in the group, they’ve seen the effects of marijuana laws firsthand.
“Growing up I was always surrounded by people who were hustlers and a lot of individuals who weren’t considered productive members of society in the government’s eyes,” León says. “We grew up around young entrepreneurs and business-minded people who could have easily had the potential to make fortunes for their families and create legacies, but all because of one law over a plant, it’ll have them doing 15 years in prison over state lines while some white kid is making millions off this shit.”
Like León and other members of Ojalá Systems, Maxwell Gay, a visual artist with the group, sees how the criminalization of marijuana directly impacts his community.
“A lot of the people that I have grown up with are either in prison now or have had family in prison for marijuana possession and trafficking. I think that it’s done a lot of damage on this community over a fairly innocuous plant,” Gay says. “I think that legalization could — if it also comes with restoration for all the people who have experienced the violence of policing — have a really positive impact on our community.”
The ballot initiative Weisser outlined at the panel establishes a procedure for expungement of marijuana-related crimes. Though the initiative doesn’t give power to erase criminal records of those currently and previously incarcerated immediately, it does create an avenue for those processes to begin.
Mikel Weisser, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, outlines the new marijuana ballot initiative during HOCO Fest’s Legalization 2020 panel on Aug. 31, 2019.
“This will be the be the platform that will be used for expungement of other types of crime as well,” Weisser says. “Seven percent of the taxes that come from this go to the social reinvestment to deal with some of the communities that have been harmed … This is an opportunity to invest in poor Hispanic communities, poor black communities and poor rural communities across the state.”
As a harm reduction specialist, Cope says she hopes decriminalization can offer consumers a greater sense of bodily autonomy and taking their health into their own hands.
“People have been using cannabis for medicinal and recreational reasons forever,” she says. “It’s about encouraging people to know that they are the experts on their own lives.”
Though legalization of recreational marijuana use might be right around the corner, John Hartsell thinks medical certification isn’t going anywhere — and rightfully so. Hartsell, HOCO Fest panelist and owner of Arizona-based marijuana packaging company DIZPOT, says medical certification serves a broad purpose for patients.
“Should I be an employee of an organization that has headquarters in another state that doesn’t have a legal cannabis situation, it continues a legal protection for my consumption of cannabis,” Hartsell says. “The adult use program does not mean an end to the medical program; it just means that we are going to reduce the crime involved in having adult use consumption and commercialization.”
Until the initiative makes its way to the ballot and voted on in 2020, industry professionals can only look to other states as a model for Arizona. For the panelists at HOCO Fest 2019, the future looks bright — but only if voters are educated on policy.
Stacey Cope, program director of Sonoran Prevention Works, responds to an audience question at the Legalization 2020 panel during HOCO Fest in downtown Tucson, Arizona on Aug. 31, 2019.