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Michigan group aiming to legalize pot

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan marijuana proponents on Friday submitted petition language to the Secretary of State’s Office, setting the stage for a summer signature drive and a potential 2018 ballot proposal to legalize recreational use by adults.

The Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol estimates that legalizing and taxing sales could generate upwards of $200 million a year for state and local governments while cutting costs for law enforcement.

“Because Michigan was the state that led this nation out of alcohol prohibition, we think Michigan can be one of the states that leads this country out of cannabis prohibition,” said political director Jeff Irwin, a former state legislator and Ann Arbor Democrat.

It could do so “by developing a set of rules that not only ends the foolishness of this failed policy, but also breaks the black market,” he said.

The proposal would tax retail sales of marijuana at 10 percent. Most of the revenue – 70 percent combined —would be used to fund K-12 schools and road repairs. The additional 30 percent would be divided between cities and counties that choose to allow marijuana businesses, which would be optional.

The tax rate is lower than earlier drafts of the initiative language and would put Michigan “in the middle of the pack” compared to eight other states that have already legalized recreational sales, according to Irwin, who said a lower rate would better discourage continued illegal sales.

The pending petition drive — expected to start later this month after review by the Board of State Canvassers — would be the second of its kind in as many years in Michigan. An activist-led group failed to collect enough valid signatures in a state-mandated 180-day window to put a proposal on the 2016 ballot.

The new coalition has the backing of the national Marijuana Policy Project, which has helped organize successful legalization efforts in other states. The committee expects to raise upwards of $8 million to hire paid petition circulators and run a statewide ballot campaign.

The cost of the campaign could depend on whether organized opposition emerges, Irwin said. Some law enforcement officials have already spoken out against marijuana legalization, and the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who led the campaign against Michigan’s medical marijuana law in 2008, said Thursday he personally opposes legalization. But the Midland Republican stopped short of saying he’d actively fight the proposal if it makes the 2018 ballot, which he also may appear on if he runs for governor.

“We have so many problems, whether it’s meth or the heroin epidemic or drugs flowing into the country and the problems of addiction,” Schuette said after an unrelated event in Lansing.

“Putting more pressure on families, more drugs at the hands of children, I personally don’t think that’s a correct way to go. But every citizen will get the chance to vote, and that’s what democracy’s about, right? That’s my attitude.”

Supporters say the proposal could actually limit access to children by moving marijuana sales off of the streets and into stores, where only adults over the age of 21 could purchase the drug. Marijuana could not be consumed in public places.

The ballot proposal calls for the state to license marijuana growers, processors, testing facilities, distributors and retailers. Local government would have to “opt-in” and could establish their own licensing fees of up to $5,000.

The initiative would also establish a new class of “marijuana micro-businesses” that would be allowed to grow up to 150 plants and then process, package and sell them directly to consumers. Adults could grow up to 12 plants at home in secured spaces.

“This will end the arrest of thousands of people every year, stop wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary law enforcement and bring marijuana out of the shadows, into a regulated marketplace where we can control it and make sure that people are using it responsibly,” said coalition spokesman Josh Hovey.

The group is expected to take its pot legalization petition before the Board of State Canvassers later this month. If the form is approved for circulation, petitioners will have to collect at least 252,523 valid voter signatures within a 180-day window in order to qualify for the ballot.

The proposal would also legalize industrial hemp farming and fund a $20 million research study on the use of cannabis by military veterans with the aim of determining whether the drug could help reduce suicide rates.