PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona voters have approved a measure that will legalize medical marijuana use in the state for people with chronic or debilitating diseases.
Final vote tallies showed Saturday that Proposition 203 won by a tiny margin of just 4,341 votes out of more than 1.67 million votes counted. The measure had started out losing on Election Day by about 7,200 votes, but the gap gradually narrowed in the following 10 days.
"Now begins the very hard work of implementing this program in the way it was envisioned, with very high standards," said Andrew Myers, campaign manager for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project. "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."
Arizona is the 15th state to approve a medical marijuana law. California was the first in 1996, and 13 other states and Washington, D.C., have since followed suit.
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 2 1/2 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. Then in 2002, voters rejected a sweeping initiative that would have decriminalized possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana for any user and required state police to hand out the drug to seriously ill people.
The measure that went before voters this month began Friday losing by about 1,500 votes, then surged ahead by 4,421 votes.
Maricopa was the only Arizona county with ballots still outstanding on Saturday. The county finished counting all the remaining provisional and early ballots by late in the afternoon.
The final, unofficial count was 841,346 in favor of the measure and 837,005 opposed.