By David Schwartz
PHOENIX, April 17 (Reuters) - Advocates for legalizing marijuana launched a petition campaign in Phoenix on Friday seeking a ballot measure that could make Arizona the fifth U.S. state to allow possession, cultivation and consumption of small amounts of pot for recreational use.
Supporters have until July of next year to obtain the signatures of 150,642 registered voters in the politically conservative state in order to get their initiative placed on the November 2016 ballot, election officials said.
Formal paperwork to kick off the drive was filed with the state on Friday.
Following the leads of five other western states and the District of Columbia, the Arizona measure would legalize possession, cultivation and private personal consumption of marijuana by adults for the sake of just getting high.
Arizona is already one of 23 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law, although the Obama administration has taken the position of giving individual states leeway to carry out their own recreational use statutes.
Under the Arizona proposal, adults 21 and older could ultimately purchase up to an ounce of marijuana through state-licensed retail outlets. They would also be permitted to grow up to six plants at home without a license.
Sales tax proceeds would be earmarked to cover regulation costs, public health and education efforts.
Colorado and Washington state led the way in legalizing recreational pot in 2012 by voter initiative, and last year became the first to make marijuana available for retail purchase in state-licensed stores.
Smoking, growing and owning small amounts of cannabis became legal in Alaska in February under a measure passed by voters in 2014, but retail pot businesses are not expected to open there before next year.
Oregon similarly voted last fall to legalize recreational marijuana, but that measure does not take effect until July.
Arizona is one of five states targeted by the Marijuana Policy Project for 2016 ballot measures, along with California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine.
Beside touting marijuana as a promising new tax revenue source for states, supporters say pot prohibition has achieved little over the years but to penalize otherwise law-abiding citizens, especially minorities.
Critics cite anticipated social harms of legalization, from declines in economic productivity to increased traffic and workplace accidents. They also warn of creating an industry intent on attracting underage users and getting more people dependent on the drug. (Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)