Recreational marijuana close to being on 2018 statewide ballot

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published January 23, 2018

LANSING — The state of Michigan could potentially be seeing a lot of green in the not-too-distant future.

On Nov. 20, a pro-marijuana group called the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted approximately 365,000 signatures to the Michigan Bureau of Elections in support of letting the voters decide whether recreational marijuana should be taxed and legalized to individuals 21 and older, as part of an intended 2018 ballot proposal called the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act.

If the proposal is on this year’s ballot and succeeds, marijuana would be legal under state and local law for adults 21 years and older; industrial hemp would be legal under state and local law; and commercial production and distribution of marijuana would be controlled under a system that licenses, regulates and taxes the businesses involved.

Individuals would be able to possess or consume no more than 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana, and more than 15 grams of concentrate. More light would also be shed on “microgrowers,” mirroring industries like brewpubs and microdistilleries.

Another aspect involves the removal of the commercial production and distribution of marijuana from the illicit market, and preventing revenue generated from commerce in marijuana from going to criminal enterprises.

The Michigan Legislature could theoretically approve, reject or introduce its own proposal, rather than put the proposal on the ballot in the first place.

According to Josh Hovey, communications director for the coalition, the proposal would model other states with legalized recreational marijuana — such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon — and would likely generate $200 million in new annual tax revenue once the market is established.

The initiative shares revenue, with 35 percent toward K-12 education, 35 percent toward the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges, 15 percent toward local municipalities that allow marijuana-related businesses in their jurisdiction, and 15 percent toward counties that allow marijuana-related businesses in their jurisdiction, with local governments using funds at their own volition.

Hovey said the group had 180 days from May 18, 2017, to start collecting signatures. Roughly $1 million was spent last year working with the National Petition Management of Brighton to develop ballot language and collect signatures, as well as to secure legal experts to devise ballot language that could not be combated by legal challenges.

“We were fortunate to have really great volunteers. … Overall, we’re very confident that the vast majority (of signatures) should be counted by the state and there shouldn’t be any problem getting on the ballot,” Hovey said.

As of Jan. 8, the group was still waiting for the signatures to be verified, though their expectation for completion was late January or early February.

Dollars spent during a pro-legalization campaign would depend on who opposes the measure, Hovey said, but he expects to raise a minimum of another $4 million or $5 million — which would come from a mix of small and large contributions from supporters both in Michigan and nationwide.

This is the second time in three years that recreational marijuana is being attempted to be placed on a ballot initiative. In June 2016, a group called MI Legalize submitted more than 350,000 signatures, only to later find that half the signatures were deemed invalid by Michigan’s Bureau of Elections.

A statement on the group’s website states: “This election cycle, MI Legalize is coming back with a vengeance. We are not only larger than ever, but we are more organized and experienced as well. We have learned from our mistakes and we are determined to shake things over the next two years. We’re going to prove that Michiganders will not sit back and watch more states embrace the economic and social benefits of marijuana legalization.”

Hovey said MI Legalize “kind of had the collection rules changed on them in the middle of the game, had the goalposts moved.” This time around, his coalition worked with groups like the nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project, of Washington, D.C., and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, to devise ballot language. It also looked at Michigan’s updated medical marijuana laws as a practice to take language from such policies.

“We were working under the same set of rules (the) entire time, from start to finish this year, which was a big difference,” he said.

Of course, not everyone is a proponent of legalizing recreational marijuana.

Last June, the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools raised $5,000 to fight against the initiative. Another committee called Healthy and Productive Michigan, headquartered in Grand Rapids, is firmly against legalization.

Scott Greenlee, president of Healthy and Productive Michigan, listed numerous reasons for opposition: Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level; he believes it is a gateway drug to harder substances; he doesn’t buy the tax windfall argument, saying lotteries were supposed to accomplish the same goal for schools across the state and have not; it could destructively impact the medical marijuana market; he claims states that have legalized recreational marijuana have seen an uptick in youth use and impaired driving; and it creates challenges for border states like Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin.

“It increases accessibility to those states,” Greenlee said. “It brings what would universally be the wrong kinds of citizens to Michigan. … It’s a tough fight. There’s a perception where people say, ‘Hey, I did it in the ’70s and it didn’t harm me.’ Today, marijuana is made with a different composition.”

His committee, which was created just before the holidays, will focus on voter education.

Others, such as Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon, won’t delve into the issue of recreational marijuana at this juncture — especially as local municipalities continue to learn and deal with a change in medical marijuana laws, which were adjusted in mid-December.

“I’m only focusing on the medical side,” Cannon said. “I know recreational marijuana will most likely be on the ballot.”

Hovey said the goal in 2018 is a simple one: to prove that there is a better alternative than prohibition.

“We’ll be fundraising to make sure we do what we need to educate voters on the issue,” he said. “I think once voters have the facts, they’ll see that prohibition of marijuana is bad, just like it was with alcohol.

“We cleared one hurdle, but the campaign is by no means a lock. We know there will be a lot of misinformation out there, organizations using fear. It’s going to be our job that everyone in the state knows what this initiative does and doesn’t do.”