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Lansing — Some Michigan House Republicans are warming up to the idea of approving and later amending a marijuana legalization initiative, according to a source familiar with caucus discussions.

Despite the improvement, GOP advocates for pot legalization are unlikely to secure the 55 votes required for House passage by a June 5 deadline, the source said.

Internal divisions mean Republican supporters would need Democratic votes. But minority party leaders have made clear they would rather see the proposal advance to the November ballot, where it could drive liberal voter turnout. House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, also personally opposes any form of legalization.

The dynamics make legislative approval “a big stretch, a big lift,” Sen. Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican, acknowledged Thursday on WKAR-TV’s "Off the Record."

"I think we’re pretty close in the Senate and the gap is bigger in the House, but I reject the notion it's being done for turnout concerns,” he said.

Shirkey is lobbying reluctant Republicans in the House, explaining options and laying out ways he thinks the proposal from the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol lacks enough controls and regulations to ensure responsible implementation.

Adopting the measure would make it easier to amend than if approved by voters, which would trigger a requirement for three-quarters majority support in both the House and Senate to make any changes. Public opinion polls suggest the measure could fare well on the ballot.

Democrats already hesitant to support the adopt-and-amend strategy dug in their heels this week after Shirkey’s comments on “Off The Record,” where he suggested Republicans could hypothetically attempt to delay implementation of legalization until the federal government reclassifies marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug.

Doing so would create an indefinite delay and effectively amount to repeal, said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “It’s proof that Republicans are working hard to deny the will of the people with a bait-and-switch.”

Shirkey’s comments “change the dynamics completely,” Ananich told The Detroit News. “You’d have to be a fool as a Democrat to work on this now.”

House Minority Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing said he does not see “any scenario” where Democrats would support the adopt-and-amend strategy “because of this potential for (Republicans) rigging the process.”

Pot is currently considered a Schedule 1 drug, the harshest federal classification. Although there have been efforts to change the status since at least 1972, none have been successful despite recent legalization in other states like Colorado and California.

Shirkey said he does not think delaying enactment in Michigan until the federal government reclassifies marijuana would amount to repeal. 

“My notion or my intent would never be to repeal, because it’s not going to go away,” Shirkey said. “It’s time we embrace the fact that it’s going to be here sooner or later, and let’s make sure we protect citizens.”

Other Republicans who personally oppose marijuana legalization are willing to adopt and amend the proposal, although they have not yet agreed on what the amendments might look like. Potential policy changes could be coupled with a shift in projected revenue to fund a cut in the state’s personal income tax rate of 4.25 percent, which could ensure more GOP support.

“We all saw with medical marijuana it took us 10 years to get anything fixed,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a former sheriff. “If we pass it, with a simple majority, we can change things. It’s out of control if it passes as it is.”

Leonard, the top House Republican and a candidate for state attorney general, has consistently opposed pot legalization and said Thursday there is “very little support” in his caucus.

“If for some reason our caucus members have a change of heart and 55 of them want to vote to approve this, I will certainly as speaker give them their vote,” he said. “ I’m speaker of the House, not dictator of the House.”

The Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools, initially formed to oppose the legalization measure, this month urged the Legislature to approve the proposal and then amend it. The committee recommended changes to the licensing structure and a prohibition on home growing.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has also urged the Legislature to take up the initiative — but without making any changes to what spokesman Josh Hovey called a “well-thought-out” plan that closely follows recent medical pot regulations.

“We believe the Legislature, if they should pass it, should do so without any changes and let the law be in place for several years before looking at any changes,” Hovey said.

Michigan should not wait for the federal government to reclassify marijuana before moving ahead with legalization, he added.

“With all social changes and social progress, the states have had to lead the way, from civil rights on down,” Hovey said. “This is another case where states are the testing grounds for democracy, and Michigan has an opportunity to lead the way.”

The legalization group submitted an estimated 277,370 valid signatures in November, and the Board of State Canvassers certified its petitions April 26. The Michigan Constitution gives lawmakers 40 days to enact initiated legislation or let it go to the ballot.

Ananich is set to propose a resolution that would prohibit lawmakers from amending initiated legislation in the same term they adopted it and require a three-quarters majority vote for any changes.

“I’m clarifying what I think the framers of our current Constitution meant,” Ananich said. “I don’t think this kind of (adopt and amend) game is what they meant.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

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