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Lansing — A national marijuana advocacy group that coordinated successful legalization efforts in multiple states last year is laying the groundwork for a Michigan ballot proposal in 2018, but it is encountering early criticism from local supporters.

The Marijuana Policy Project, which also worked on Michigan’s medical pot law in 2008, is in talks with local activists who tried to get a full legalization proposal on the 2016 ballot but fell short because of invalidated petition signatures.

The “coalition to regulate marijuana like alcohol,” a Michigan ballot committee created by the Policy Project, hopes to finalize new petition language by the end of April and submit signatures by October ahead of a potential 2018 campaign.

“It’s clear that a strong majority of Michigan voters think it’s time to end prohibition,” Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert told The Detroit News, citing recent public opinion polls. “I believe it’s a trend we’re seeing in states nationwide. More and more voters are wanting to adopt a more sensible marijuana policy. They see it working in other states.”

The Policy Project helped finance winning legalization campaigns in Colorado and Alaska in 2014. Last year, it helped raise money for voter-approved proposals in Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. It also contributed to a successful campaign in California and supported an initiative in Arizona that was narrowly defeated.

Mason said he’s “hopeful we’ll be moving forward in Michigan” but acknowledged it’s not a done deal.

The effort here has been complicated by disagreements over potential ballot language. Organizers of the 2016 “MI Legalize” petition drive have objected to provisions in the latest draft proposal, released this week for public review.

“It’s always a process coming together on language, and there’s a lot of folks who have been working on this issue for a long time and have a lot of passion,” said former state Rep. Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat who is working as political director for the new committee.

“But when you want to pass something statewide, you’ve got to put together something that is palatable to more than half of Michigan voters. That’s what we’re trying to work out right now.”

While the committee has not finalized language, the latest draft would allow adults 21 and older to possess and grow specified amounts of marijuana. But it would remain illegal to consume pot on a public sidewalk, street or park.

What early plan legalizes

The state would license separate marijuana cultivators, processors, testing facilities, secure transporters and retail stores. The draft proposal also would allow for microbrewery-like businesses that could grow up to 150 plants to process, package and sell directly to consumers.

Marijuana would be taxed at the wholesale level — $20 per ounce of dried flower or $6.75 per ounce of dried leaves, according to the draft. Retail sales would be subject to the state’s 6 percent sales tax, which goes to schools and local governments.

Half the revenue from the new excise tax would go to community colleges or vocational schools, while the other half would go to local governments that “opt in” and allow marijuana businesses to operate.

“We haven’t calculated a hard number yet, but based on what we’ve seen it Colorado, Washington and some other states, I think it’s safe to say (this could generate) upwards of $100 million or more,” said committee spokesman Josh Hovey, who works for the Lansing-based Truscott Rossman public relations firm. “And then once the market matures, it could go beyond that.”

But local activists have concerns. Matthew Abel, a Cannabis Counsel attorney and part of the 2016 MI Legalize team, said he thinks the latest legalization draft language seems “very protectionist” and “somewhat monopolistic.”

Rules concern activists

Abel said he is concerned by state licensing requirements, including rules for “secure transporters,” distributors who would have the unique authority to deliver marijuana between growers and other businesses. Transporters would also be tasked with remitting the wholesale tax.

The licensing system is similar to new medical marijuana regulations approved last year by Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature. Activists also raised concerns about those rules, which are set for to go into effect later this year, arguing middle-men distributors could drive up prices.

MI Legalize remains committed to getting a proposal on the ballot in 2018, Abel said, but he’s not sure if the activist group will end up backing the Policy Project effort to regulate recreational marijuana like alcohol.

“We’d like nothing more than to come together on this … but not at the expense of the state of Michigan and not to benefit big money interests,” Abel said. “As I’ve said before, Republicans don’t want marijuana legal until they can sell it to us.”

Michigan’s new medical marijuana rules did inspire some of the language in the draft legalization proposal, Hovey confirmed, suggesting that creating a new recreational marijuana regulatory system that is too “dissimilar” could create confusion.

In addition to working with activists, Hovey said the coalition has reached out to groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association and the Michigan Municipal League.

Ballot group seeks input

“We’re really just trying to gather as much input as possible, be as open and transparent as possible, and strike that right balance for something that works on all sides,” Hovey said.

Former Allegan County Sheriff Blaine Koops, new executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said his group is generally wary of marijuana legalization but has not reached a consensus on the topic.

“I would say that we’re opposed to it but we want to be at the table,” he said. “We want to be part of the discussion. Our big issue is the safety of the community. That’s what is at the heart of our mission, and it will remain that way.”

The “coalition to regulate marijuana like alcohol” ballot committee reported raising $128,000 between Jan. 1 and Feb. 10, according to a filing with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

Pulling off a successful petition drive would likely cost $1.5 million, said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Running a winning campaign could cost much more.

“It’s a huge business,” Mauger said of petition drives and ballot proposals. “It’s very rare that a group is able to orchestrate a petition drive to get enough voter signatures without paying professional signature gatherers in Michigan.”

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and it is not yet clear whether President Donald Trump’s administration will maintain a hands-off approach to state legalization formally adopted in 2013.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized marijuana use and users, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested the U.S. Department of Justice could step up enforcement.

But the Marijuana Policy Project is optimistic Sessions will maintain a state’s rights approach to marijuana, and Tvert said the group isn’t stopping any legalization efforts because of uncertainty.

“It’s not a question of if he likes it. It’s a question of whether he believes federal resources should be prioritized for enforcing prohibition laws,” Tvert said. “Everything he has said has led people, including us, to believe they do not intend to do that.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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