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Ypsilanti — Four leading Democrats and one little-known Republican running for Michigan governor are throwing their support behind marijuana legalization ahead of a potential statewide proposal they could share the ballot with in 2018.

“We’ve seen other states do it wrong. In Michigan, we’ve got a chance to do it right,” said former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday night in a candidate forum hosted by MI Legalize.

The activist-led group is a member of and top donor to the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, a ballot committee preparing to submit petition signatures for a proposal that would regulate and tax commercial marijuana production and retail sales in Michigan.

Abdul El-Sayed, a medical doctor and former Detroit Health Department director, said he has seen first-hand the efficacy of medical marijuana to treat seizures and believes full legalization would open the door to more rigorous research on its effects.

“This has become a civil rights issue,” El-Sayed said, pointing to statistics showing criminal enforcement has had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and African-Americans. “We have an opportunity here in Michigan to rethink marijuana.”

Evan Space, a long-shot Republican from Lansing and military veteran, said he wants to provide better access to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Shri Thanedar, an Ann Arbor Democrat and scientist, said science supports legalization. Bill Cobbs, a former Detroit police officer, said prohibition has been a failure.

“Most cops don’t want to arrest people for marijuana because we understand what it does to somebody’s life when we give them a criminal record this insignificant,” Cobbs said.

MI Legalize leader Jeff Hank said forum participation by five gubernatorial candidates is evidence of “a cultural change we’re undergoing here” in Michigan and told activists the event made him emotional.

Democrats in particular are increasingly embracing full legalization. The party’s nominee for governor in 2014, Mark Schauer, took a wait-and-see approach to legalization, saying he wanted to see results of the “grand experiment” in Colorado and Washington state but would “not want to lead on that issue” in Michigan.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the early favorite for the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nomination, led the campaign against Michigan’s medical marijuana law in 2008 but has distanced himself from the more recent legalization debate. Schuette has said he is concerned legalization could increase youth access to marijuana but has repeatedly called it an issue that voters should decide.

Political candidates are taking note of public opinion polling showing growing support for marijuana legalization in Michigan, said MI Legalize political organizer Sam Pernick, predicting the 2018 ballot measure could encourage first-time or rare voters to go to the polls.

“Republicans who were sternly opposed are now neutral, and Democrats who were neutral are now strongly supportive,” he said. “We do have many Republicans with a more libertarian bent who are supportive too.”

Pernick said forum organizers tried to identify candidates supporting legalization but also invited Schuette to the event. While he did not respond, Schuette was repeatedly mentioned, with Whitmer of East Lansing arguing the attorney general has “thrown up barrier after barrier” between medical marijuana patients and their medicine.

“This is an opportunity to go a step further and say, here in Michigan, we’re going to embrace the legalization, but we’re also going to grow our economy,” Whitmer said. “We’re going to create real clear rules so that we can do this so that we don’t leave patients, we don’t leave small business owners to fend for themselves.”

Thanedar, a businessman who is largely self-funding his campaign, argued that Michigan’s next governor needs to make sure “big business doesn’t hijack” the prospective legal marijuana industry.

“We’ve got to make sure we support the small businesses, we support the entrepreneurs and we fight any kind of attempt by the federal government to take away people’s rights,” he said.

While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, voters in eight states have approved recreational use laws. Colorado was the first state to implement legalization, with retail sales beginning in 2014. Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage this month vetoed legislation to regulate and tax the drug despite voters last year approving a legalization measure.

Under the potential Michigan ballot proposal, marijuana retail sales would be taxed at 10 percent, plus sales tax, with the new revenue going to K-12 schools, road repairs and participating cities and counties.

Space noted the proposal would also legalize industrial hemp farming.

“Let’s turn it into an agricultural boom,” he said. “Michigan already grows corn. Why not turn our state greener and improve our environment?”

Michigan Democrats and Republicans will elect their party’s gubernatorial nominees in August. The marijuana legalization proposal could appear on the November general election if organizers submit enough signatures and the measure survives any legal challenges.

“I already know we’re going to legalize. That’s a done deal,” El-Sayed said. “What I want to talk about now is what happens next.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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