PHOENIX – By a narrow margin, Arizona voters have given their OK to legalized medical marijuana for people with chronic or debilitating diseases.
The decision makes Arizona the 15th state to approve a medical marijuana law. California was the first in 1996, and 13 other states and Washington, D.C., have followed suit.
Proposition 203 won by just 4,341 votes out of more than 1.67 million ballots counted, according to final tallies Saturday.
Approval came as somewhat of a surprise after the measure started out losing on Election Day by about 7,200 votes. The gap gradually narrowed until it surged ahead during Friday's count by more than 4,000 votes. Saturday's final count was 841,346 in favor of the measure and 837,005 opposed.
"We really believe that we have an opportunity to set an example to the rest of the country on what a good medical marijuana program looks like," said Andrew Myers, campaign manager for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project.
The Arizona measure will allow patients with diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and any other "chronic or debilitating" disease that meets guidelines to buy 2½ ounces of marijuana every two weeks or grow plants.
The patients must get a recommendation from their doctor and register with the Arizona Department of Health Services. The law allows for no more than 124 marijuana dispensaries in the state. After ballots are canvassed Nov. 29, the state has 120 days before the law goes into effect.
Backers of Proposition 203 have argued that thousands of patients faced "a terrible choice" of suffering with a serious or even terminal illness or going to the criminal market for pot. They collected more than 252,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot — nearly 100,000 more than required.
All Arizona's sheriff's and county prosecutors, the governor, attorney general and many other politicians came out against the measure.
Carolyn Short, chairwoman of Keep AZ Drug Free, the group that organized opposition to the initiative, said her group believes the law will increase crime around dispensary locations, lead to more people driving while impaired and eventually lead to legalized pot for everyone.
She noted that the major financial backer of the new measure, the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, makes no bones about its ultimate goal: national legalization of marijuana for everyone.
"All of the political leaders came out and warned Arizonans that this was going to have very dire effects on a number of levels," Short said after the measure pulled into the lead late on Friday. "I don't think that all Arizonans have heard those dire predictions."
Arizona voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana law in 1996 and 1998, but it never went into effect because of problems with its wording.