Medical marijuana measure pulls ahead in Arizona

PHOENIX — Vote counts released Friday show a measure that would legalize medical marijuana in Arizona pulling ahead for the first time since Election Day.

Proposition 203 was ahead by 4,421 votes out of more than 1.63 million votes counted. The measure started out losing by about 7,200 votes on Nov. 2 and the gap gradually narrowed in the following 10 days.

Only about 10,000 early and provisional ballots remain to be counted in the state, and all are in Maricopa County. That makes a victory for the measure’s supporters a virtual certainty.

Arizona would be the 15th state with a medical marijuana law.

“We were optimistic that this is what the result was going to be today, and we’re thrilled that it came to reality,” Proposition 203 backer Andrew Myers said. “Moving forward it’s our responsibility to help implement a program that Arizona can be proud of.”

The measure began Friday losing by about 1,500 votes.

The vast majority of outstanding votes were in Maricopa County on Friday morning. About 30,000 provisional ballots during the day, and those went heavily for medical marijuana backers. The county also processed 5,024 early ballots.

Maricopa County has 8,000 early and 2,000 provisional ballots still to count, and all other counties have finished their counts. Outstanding ballots will be counted through the weekend despite a state law that generally says all vote tallying must be completed by Friday.

Teams made up of members of the Republican and Democratic parties are overseeing elections workers tasked with reviewing the early ballot. Those ballots have some problem that prevents a vote-count machine from tallying them, typically because a voter used a marker to fill in the oval and it bled through to the other side or otherwise is unreadable.

The teams are examining the ballots, determining voter intent and filling out new ballots that the machine can read, Purcell said.

The medical marijuana law was opposed by all 30 of Arizona’s county attorneys and sheriffs. The leader of a group opposed to the measure said before the late votes turn in favor of support that she was hopeful their efforts paid off.

“We are hopeful that we reached enough voters with what this was really all about, and it was not about sick people,” Carolyn Short, chairwoman of Keep AZ Drug Free, the group that organized opposition to the initiative. “It was a backdoor route to legalization. It would make available marijuana to anybody anyone who wanted it, and not only that but it would also provide special protections to anyone who used marijuana pursuant to a marijuana card.”

Backers of Proposition 203 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.

The measure will allow patients with diseases including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and any other “chronic or debilitating” disease that meets guidelines to buy more 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 also allows for no more than 124 marijuana dispensaries in the state.

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