About 125 people from across Arizona gathered in front of the State Capitol on Monday morning to protest current marijuana laws and call for its legalization.
The protest organized by the advocacy group Safer Arizona was one of many planned for the first day of the 2015 Legislative session.
Demonstrators in coordinated garb held signs with phrases such as "Free the leaf," "Marijuana is safer than alcohol" and "The war on drugs is a war on U$." The signs reflected the issues on which the protesters focused throughout the event, including the felony status and fees that come with marijuana possession and its possible use in aiding veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, among other health conditions.
Founder of Safer Arizona, Dennis Bohlke, 60, said the group plans to protest on the first day of the legislative agenda every year until it achieves success.
"This is our one event that we think everybody should show up at that wants to see any efforts at all," Bohlke said.
The protesters circulated two petitions at the event: one to legalize marijuana and one to end the penalties for possession. The current penalties for illegal marijuana possession are a fine of $750 and up to nearly 4 years in prison, while the sale of marijuana could result in up to 12½ years in prison.
Robert Clark, 59, who described himself as a disabled union carpenter, is the co-chair of Safer Arizona. He said recreational marijuana use should be allowed in private settings.
"What we're trying to do is let our legislators know that we're tired of prohibition," Clark said. "We want them to reform the cannabis laws and stop arresting nonviolent citizens."
He said the biggest obstacle to mobilizing people for the cause is the fact that marijuana is still illegal. He said many people do not want to come forward as marijuana users for fear of admitting to a crime. Most demonstrators present on Monday were medical-marijuana patients, he said.
Arizona State University student Sarah Saucedo, 20, who participated in the protest, is president of the student group Students for Sensible Drug Policy and said the policy of marijuana prohibition has been a failure.
"In our eyes, as students, if I got caught with something like marijuana, there goes my scholarships, my financial aid and any chance of ever basically going back to school. And I get a fat felony on my record," Saucedo said. "It doesn't seem like the crime fits the punishment."
A recent op-ed in The Arizona Republic by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk highlighted the negative effects in states that have legalized marijuana, including less revenue than expected from its sale and adverse messages sent to children about its use.
Up to $50 million in potential tax revenue is one argument Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, has highlighted ahead of introducing a bill this session that would legalize the purchase, possession and consumption of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults age 21 and older.
Proponents of legalizing marijuana are expected to try to get a measure on the 2016 Arizona ballot, following similar successful efforts in Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Cardenas said polling in Arizona shows such a ballot measure would likely pass, as medical-marijuana legalization did in 2010.
Sarah A. Jarvis, The Republic | azcentral.com ~ Reporter Alia Beard Rau contributed to this article. ~ January 12, 2015