Legal pot’s impact foggy as Michigan weighs ballot bid

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Marijuana for sale at Bloom City marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor.

After the initial haze clears, Michigan stands to gain financially from recreational marijuana if voters choose to legalize it.

And while few dispute the potential economic benefit, critics argue it comes at too high of a price.

Voters will decide this November whether to allow marijuana use by adults 21 and older after the state Legislature failed this week to muster enough support to adopt and amend a citizen-initiated proposal. 

Supporters of legalization envision a Michigan where the regulation and taxation of the plant creates a new branch of tourism, drawing visitors and dollars from across the Midwest into the Great Lakes State. Initial estimates say it will generate $200 million a year in tax revenues.

That gold rush has strong interest among residents. Last weekend, the CannaCon Detroit Conference, a cannabis industry convention, came to Cobo Center. Along with educational seminars on pot, exhibitors were encouraged to come to Michigan to "to unlock the potential of this emerging industry," noting the upcoming ballot proposal.

Legalization also will launch a whole new business in the state — the cultivation of industrial hemp — transforming acres of rural landscape. Hemp can be used to make textiles, biodegradable plastics, food, construction materials and fuel. 

Advocates say cities and suburbs, meanwhile, would become places where consumers are protected with safety regulations for retail marijuana while local governments are given the option of whether they want to allow marijuana businesses in their communities.

Critics fear a Michigan where an addictive, unhealthy drug is legalized and unwanted marijuana use will occur, including among children, through pot edibles, candies, cookies and other kid-friendly items to be sold at stores. Roadways also would be driven by stoned drivers.

Legalization, opponents say, disproportionally affects lower-income communities of color, strains state and local budgets, reinforces — not eliminates — the black market for marijuana and places a burden on employers.

Trisha Stevens, a manager at Bloom City marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor, works behind the counter on May 24, 2018.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard University and at the Cato Institute who’s studied the effects of legalization already in eight states, says it’s time for everybody to take a deep breath and consider this: There has been little to support the stronger claims made by either opponents or advocates of recreational use. Cato is a pro-individual liberty, free-market think tank.

“There doesn’t seem to be noticeable changes positive or negative in states that have legalized so far,” Miron said. “It’s fair to say it’s too early, but nothing that confirms the worst-case scenarios as some had predicted.”

Most researchers are focusing on Colorado and Washington, which became the first legalized states in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., to follow in 2014. In 2016, voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada approved ballot initiatives. In January, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through its Legislature.

Miron and his colleagues published a policy analysis at Cato that examined trends in health, crime, education, traffic crashes and other areas before and after legalization in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska only.

Claims that teen marijuana use would increase did not always play out, Miron says, neither did claims that criminal justice budgets would skyrocket. Promises of massive tax revenues pouring into state coffers took years after passage to materialize. 

The Colorado Department of Revenue showed totals from marijuana revenues range from $67.6 million in 2014 to $247 million in 2017. The state has a $28.9 billion budget, according to the Associated Press. Michigan's budget, by comparison, is nearly $57 billion.

“Marijuana is just one product out of a huge economy in states like Colorado and Washington,” he said. “The extra revenue is worth getting ... but it’s not going to make a fundamental difference in the fundamental health of the government.”

Pros and cons

It’s not hard to find arguments, data points and research for or against marijuana legalization.

The anti-pot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana recently tweeted: “New data out of Washington state is indeed troubling. Marijuana-related traffic fatalities have DOUBLED in the state since legalization.”

The April report, by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, looked at the significant increase of multiple drug use — alcohol and other intoxicants — in drivers involved in deadly crashes. 

The report found nearly 1 in 5 daytime drivers may be under the influence of marijuana, up from fewer than one in 10 drivers prior to the implementation of retail marijuana sales. It also found that 39.1 percent of drivers who have used marijuana in the previous year admit to driving within three hours of marijuana use. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that works toward decriminalization of responsible drug use, marijuana legalization is linked to lower rates of opioid-related harm, including overdose deaths and it has reduced marijuana-related arrests in Oregon by 96 percent.

Manager Trisha Stevens, right, makes a sale to customer Cheryl Cameron, of Chelsea, at Bloom City marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor.

The legal marijuana industry employs between 165,000 to 230,000 full- and part-time workers, the alliance says, and is expected to grow.

Jolene Forman, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, says evidence shows that marijuana legalization is working. The alliance published a report in January that found arrests and court filings for the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana have plummeted since voters legalized marijuana for adult use in eight states and Washington, D.C. These states have saved millions of dollars and prevented the criminalization of thousands of people, Forman says.

But there are areas where work remains for states, Forman says, such as establishing safe public places for people to consume marijuana. Public consumption would be illegal under Michigan’s proposed marijuana law. Consuming marijuana in public is illegal in all eight states and Washington, D.C.

“This means that people who lack the means to pay the fines and fees, or those without homes or in federally subsidized housing, risk being jailed for consuming a lawful substance,” Forman said.

How the feds fit in

Marijuana use, sale and possession remain illegal under federal law, but officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit rarely have — if ever — gone after individuals for small amounts of the controlled substance.

"This office will review marijuana cases in terms of where those cases fit within our priorities and our limited federal resources," U.S. Attorney in Detroit Matthew J. Schneider said when asked whether federal resources would be used to make marijuana arrests if recreational pot is legalized in Michigan.

Trisha Parker-Madison of Chicago celebrates by waving a flag to promote marijuana legalization during the Mile High 420 Festival, April 20, 2018, in Denver. The annual celebration was projected to attract an estimated 50,000 people in Civic Center Park.

In January, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a 2013 Obama-era memorandum that urged federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations and issued a new memo instructing U.S. attorneys to enforce federal law related to marijuana.

Another area that remains unresolved in other states — and has not been addressed by the ballot language in Michigan — is the treatment of banking revenues from marijuana businesses. 

Because all banks are subject to federal regulation, no bank will deposit money from federally illegal activities, says Miron with Harvard and Cato.

“That means there are still a lot of cash transactions, an increased use of security guards," Miron said. "That is an ongoing issue still for many states.”

The Michigan ballot proposal from the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol would allow personal possession and use of marijuana by people older than 21 but limit personal possession to 2.5 ounces and growth to 12 plants per household.

The measure would prohibit marijuana consumption or smoking in a public place or in a private location where the owner forbids it, and it would not override workplace drug policies.

The plan would impose a 10 percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales in addition to the state’s 6 percent sales tax. 

The proposal allows for licensing of businesses that grow, process, test, transport or sell marijuana with three classes of cultivator licenses. Municipalities would be able to prohibit or limit the number and types of facilities within their boundaries.

Scott Greenlee, president of Healthy and Productive Michigan, an opposition committee formed to fight legalization, says he thinks voters in Michigan will be like those in Ohio who rejected a marijuana legalization measure in 2015.

The organization has posted a report that state governments lose money when marijuana is legalized because of societal costs, such as absenteeism, non-fatal workplace injuries, homelessness and drugged driving.

Greenlee says Michigan will have to contend with an entirely new set of problems, starting with employers in the fields of transportation, medical and heavy machinery, who must conduct regular drug testing, and where no amount of marijuana is permissible.

“We are very concerned people will lose jobs and careers over it," he said. "It causes concerns for employers to maintain staff levels."

Greenlee notes voters are heavily divided on the issue.

“Despite what the pro-pot community wants you to believe, this is an issue that is far from decided in Michigan. People who have done their research are not sold and are concerned that the tax dollars won’t add up as advertised," Greenlee said.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana of Virginia, which has aligned itself with Health and Productive Michigan, says Michigan has much to expect if voters legalize pot, and none of it is good.

“I think Michigan can look forward to more car crashes due to impaired driving, more suspensions and citations at school among youth for marijuana use, and more problems due to commercialization of edibles,” Sabet said. 

“Michigan isn’t voting on what you used to smoke at Woodstock. It’s voting to approve kid-friendly products that are easily mistaken for the real thing."

Sabet predicts that any tax revenues will be quickly erased by the costs of impaired driving, increased homeless and impact to the workforce.

"This will also be a nightmare for the workplace considering how long THC stays in the system," he said. "It’s great news for trial lawyers."

'It's a whole new industry'

Josh Hovey, communications director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, whose members wrote the ballot initiative and collected signatures to get the question before voters, says after Michigan voters approved medical marijuana in 2008, there was tremendous confusion.

“You will see a very different scenario than post-2008 after we approved medical. That law created a lot of gray areas. You saw businesses popping up, and they didn’t know if they would stay open. Owners didn’t invest in their properties,” Hovey said.

“Now under legalization, you will see vibrant storefronts that are more professional operations. You will see more like Colorado and Washington and Oregon, where there are a lot of new jobs. It’s a whole new industry."

In this April 23, 2018 photo, Trevor Eubanks, plant manager for Big Top Farms, shovels dried hemp as branches hang drying in barn rafters overhead at their production facility near Sisters, Ore. A glut of legal marijuana has driven pot prices to rock-bottom levels in Oregon, and an increasing number of nervous growers are pivoting to another type of cannabis to make ends meet--hemp.

The coalition estimates $200 million in new revenue a year from legalization, which will support state-funded road projects, K-12 education and the local municipalities and counties where retail or micro-businesses are located.

“I see a very well regulated market where we have communities that have opted in and creating regulations so that it’s clear where when and how the various licenses business can operate,” Hovey said.

Police in Michigan make around 23,000 arrests a year for marijuana-related crimes. That should stop, Hovey says, allowing law enforcement to use their resources to focus on other crime.

“What you won’t see are users smoking pot out on public streets or public parks,” Hovey said. “From a public perspective, you won’t see a whole lot different than is visible now.”

Many critics of legalized marijuana cite health concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site warns that marijuana use may have a wide range of health effects on the body and brain, including addiction; short-term problems with attention, memory and learning; increased heart rate from smoking the drug; and the possibility of increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

Federal health officials say marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, with 37.6 million users in the past year.

Officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services say their agency would issue health information guidelines for marijuana only if the Michigan Legislature asks them to do so. That has not happened, according to spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin.

Supporters and users of marijuana say it’s past time to decriminalize it.

John Sinclair, 76, a poet and political activist, says legalization will take marijuana out of the hands of police and keep it in the hands of the people. He recently spoke in support of the ballot initiative at the annual Hash Bash in Ann Arbor.

“I just want it to be legal. I’ve smoked marijuana every day since 1962, and most of that time I was a criminal,” Sinclair said.

Since 2008, Sinclair has used marijuana legally under the state’s medical marijuana law. While he does not think marijuana needs regulation and supports public consumption of marijuana in cafes, which the ballot initiative bans, Sinclair says he is voting in favor of legalization this November. He sees his future as a consumer only.

“There has never been anything wrong with marijuana. It is worth regulation as much as a carrot or head of lettuce,” he said. “To have it out of the hands of the police is my goal. I am encouraging people to vote for it.”

Allison Ireton, an attorney who is working with the Bloom City Club in Ann Arbor, says once the state legalizes marijuana, protections and benefits will be afforded to all users, not just those with medicinal clearance.

“People roll their eyes when other people say their lives have changed due to cannabis," she said. "I have seen it. It’s mind-blowing to me.”