PHOENIX >> Legal sales of recreational marijuana in Arizona started on Friday, a once-unthinkable step in the former conservative stronghold that joins 14 other states that have broadly legalized pot.
The state Health Services Department on Friday announced it had approved 73 licenses in nine of the state’s 15 counties under provisions of the marijuana legalization measure passed by voters in November. Most of the licenses went to existing medical marijuana dispensaries that can start selling pot right away.
“It’s an exciting step for those that want to participate in that program,” said Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona’s state health director, on Friday.
Under the terms of Proposition 207, people 21 and older can grow their own plants and legally possess up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana or a smaller quantity of “concentrates” such as hashish. Possession of between 1 ounce and 2.5 ounces (70 grams) is a petty offense carrying a maximum $300 fine.
The march toward decriminalization in the Sun Belt state was long. Approval of the legalization measure came four years after Arizona voters narrowly defeated a similar proposal, although medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 2010.
The initiative faced stiff opposition from Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and GOP leaders in the state Legislature, but 60% of the state’s voters in the November election approved it.
The vote on marijuana reflected larger trends at play during the historic election that saw Democrat Joe Biden flip the longtime Republican stronghold where political giants include five-term conservative senator Barry Goldwater and the late GOP Sen. John McCain.
Changing demographics, including a fast-growing Latino population and a flood of new residents, have made the state friendlier to Democrats.
The recreational pot measure was backed by advocates for the legal marijuana industry and criminal justice reform advocates who argued that the state’s harsh marijuana laws were out of step with the nation. Arizona was the only state in the country that still allowed a felony charge for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana, although most cases were prosecuted as lower-level misdemeanors.
The vast majority of the licenses issued Friday were in Maricopa County, the state’s largest county that’s home to Phoenix and its suburbs. Other counties with dispensaries now allowed to sell recreational pot are Cochise, Coconino, Gila, Pima, Pinal, Yavapai and Yuma counties. Six other applications the state received after opening its new licensing process are under review, officials said.
Voters in New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana also approved making possession of recreational marijuana legal last November.
Arizona prosecutors dropped thousands of marijuana possession cases after the measure was approved. Possession in the state technically became legal when the election results were certified on Nov. 30 but there was no authorized way to purchase it without a medical marijuana card.
Voters in November dealt another blow to Republicans in control of the state’s power levers when they approved a new tax on high earners to boost education funding, a move that came after years of GOP tax cuts and the underfunding of public schools.