PHOENIX -- State lawmakers hope to use fees paid by medical marijuana users and dispensaries to convince everyone else not to inhale.
Legislation approved Wednesday by the House Health Committee would set up a special fund from those fees, civil penalties and any private donations. Under the terms of HB 2333 the Department of Health Services would then divide up the cash specifically for programs "to discourage marijuana use among the general population.'
Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said there already is about $6 million sitting unused that has been collected since voters approved medical marijuana in 2010. And he said the fund should bring in about $2 million more each year.
Orr said he is specifically looking at giving money to police departments to put "resource officers' in public schools to provide drug education programs. He said these would parallel existing DARE programs -- Drug Abuse Resistance Education -- which already exist in schools to convince kinds to "just say no' to alcohol and drugs.
The measure is drawing opposition from the Marijuana Policy Project, the national organization that funded Arizona's successful 2010 initiative.
"It is remarkable how much money some government officials are willing to flush down the toilet in hopes of scaring adults away from using marijuana,' said Mason Tvert, the organization's spokesman.
He said any information provided to the public at government expense should be based on facts.
"It's a fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol,' Tvert said. "If an adult would prefer to make the safer choice to use marijuana instead of using alcohol, they should have that right.'
Tvert said, though, he has no problem with discouraging young people from using marijuana.
Orr, who said he has since come around to support the idea of medical marijuana, agreed with Tvert -- to a point. Orr said he intends to have the legislation amended so that any efforts to keep people from using the drug would have to be aimed solely at those who are younger than 24.
"The research does show there can be some detrimental effects for people under 24,' he said. "There's no similar research for people over 24.'
Philosophical and political considerations aside, what Orr wants to do may be illegal.
The Arizona Constitution generally precludes lawmakers from repealing or otherwise altering anything that has been approved at the ballot.
Changes are permitted only when they "further the purpose' of the original measure. Tvert said his organization's lawyers are studying Orr's amendment to see whether using funds from medical marijuana users to discourage others from smoking fits that legal definition.
Even if Orr's proposal meets the legal requirements, he has another hurdle: Changes to voter-approved measures require a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, attached a last-minute addition to Orr's plan. It would allow some of the funds to be used for research conducted at a university to determine "the safety, efficacy and adverse events associated with marijuana.'
The funds the Department of Health Services now collects are not all sitting idle.
The agency already pays the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona to constantly review and update research worldwide about medical conditions for which marijuana may be appropriate. Spokeswoman Laura Oxley said her agency also has provided funds to poison control centers and pay for attorneys in challenges to the law and regulations.
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