Pot legalization proposal heading to Michigan ballot

Marijuana for sale at Bloom City marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor.

Lansing — Michigan voters will decide the fate of recreational marijuana legalization in November after the Republican-led Legislature failed Tuesday to muster enough support to adopt and amend a citizen-initiated proposal. 

The House and Senate adjourned without taking up the measure to allow adult use and commercial sales. They missed the 40-day deadline to act on the proposal from the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which now heads to the fall ballot. 

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof wanted to amend the initiative to ban home growing and more closely mirror new medical marijuana regulations. But short on votes in the House, the West Olive Republican declared defeat while bemoaning inaction as a “missed opportunity.”

"This was not a question of whether or not to support legalized marijuana,” Meekhof said in a statement. “Adoption of this petition was a choice to fulfill our obligations as leaders in our communities and control the impact of recreational marijuana on our state.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, personally opposes legalization but pledged to put the measure up for a vote if 55 members supported the adopt-and-amend strategy. The lower chamber was "nowhere in the ballpark" of votes needed to pass the legislation, Leonard said Tuesday.

"It's just not going to happen today," the speaker told reporters. "The voters are going to have to decide this issue.”

Public polling suggests the marijuana proposal might be popular this fall and motivate young voters who tend to support Democrats. But Republicans pushing adoption said they wanted to ensure easier amendments, which would now require a three-quarters majority approval if voters approve the plan.

The debate divided Leonard and Meekhof, who said last week he had the Senate votes to adopt the measure and suggested it would be a “failure of leadership” if the House was not able to do the same.

“I think they have come to the point where they agree to disagree with one another on most things,” Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann said of the GOP leaders.

Democrats avoid GOP effort

Republicans pushing the adopt-and-amend strategy would have needed significant support from House Democrats, many of whom support marijuana legalization but were wary of potential changes by the GOP majority.

“I’ve said all along this is a decision that should go to voters,” House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said Tuesday afternoon. He suggested Republicans wanted to change the marijuana measure “to allow a small group of donors to run this system, and that wasn’t something Democrats were going to support.”

While at least two Democrats were willing to talk with Republicans, Singh said GOP leadership never came to him personally to discuss a deal on the marijuana proposal. He downplayed the suggestion Democrats would not play ball simply because they want the measure on the ballot to boost turnout.

“I don’t think it hurts us to have it on the ballot, but I know for a fact that some of the games that were being played with this legislation was something Democrats didn’t want to be a part of,” Singh said.

Senate leadership never provided an amended proposal to House Republicans, which was a cause of concern for some caucus members as they considered the issue, Leonard said. 

"I have to believe if they had the votes to pass this, if they were serious, they would have taken a vote," he said. 

The proposal would regulate marijuana production and retail sales in Michigan, where communities could choose to opt out and not allow licensed facilities. It calls for a 10 percent excise tax, with revenue dedicated to roads, schools and local governments.

Residents could generally carry up to 2.5 ounces of the drug or possess up to 10 ounces in their homes, but smoking would not be allowed on public sidewalks.

Backers shift to campaign

With legislative action off the table, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol will now focus on the general election campaign, spokesman Josh Hovey said in a statement.

“While we would have been happy to see our initiative passed by the Legislature as written, we are confident Michigan voters understand that marijuana prohibition has been an absolute disaster and that they will agree that taxing and regulating marijuana is a far better solution,” Hovey said. 

The Healthy and Production Michigan opposition committee is prepared to fight the legalization proposal and will encourage a “no” vote in the Nov. 6 election, organizer Scott Greenlee said in an email.

The legalization initiative would be an “absolute disaster for Michigan,” Greenlee said. “Michigan does not need pot candy and cookies, and we don’t need more drugged drivers and workers under the influence.”

Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, said Monday he was prepared to reluctantly support legalization because it would have given the Legislature more power to amend what he called a flawed proposal.

“It will win (at the ballot) and then we’ll be stuck with it,” Brandenburg said, noting a years-long struggle to “straighten out” the 2008 medical marijuana law.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Canton Township Republican running for governor, said Tuesday morning on his campaign Facebook page that he was planning to oppose the legalization proposal if Meekhof put it up for a vote in the Senate.

Colbeck cited concerns that recreational marijuana users could fail drug tests required by employers, resulting in more people on public assistance.

“This would be unsustainable and make the Lost Decade look like the good ole days,” Colbeck said, referencing Michigan's economic woes in the early 2000s. “Please pray that the House stands firm in opposition.”

The Board of State Canvassers certified petitions from the Coalition to Regulate Alcohol on April 26. The Michigan Bureau of Elections estimates the group turned in 277,370 valid signatures for the measure. 

The Michigan Constitution gives lawmakers 40 days to adopt citizen-initiated legislation, allow it to go to the ballot or propose an alternative and allow voters to pick their favorite.  

House and Senate Republicans could take up a separate initiative to repeal the state's prevailing wage law for construction workers as soon as Wednesday. Doing so would allow them to circumvent a veto threat by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.