Whitmer will consider forgiving marijuana crimes

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Governor-Elect Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov.-Elect Garlin Gilchrist II host a post-election news conference, Wednesday morning in Detroit.

Detroit – Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer will pursue executive action or legislation to free inmates and expunge criminal records for those convicted of marijuana crimes that will become legal under the state's pending recreational marijuana law, she indicated Wednesday.

“I think that the people of Michigan have said that for conduct that would now be legal, no one should bear a lifelong record for that conduct,” Whitmer said in her first press conference since winning election over Republican Bill Schuette on Tuesday night.

Voters approved Proposal 1 to legalize adult marijuana possession and set up a system to license businesses.

Whitmer will replace GOP Gov. Rick Snyder on Jan. 1 and “will start taking a look at (marijuana crime expungement) and making some decisions and taking some action early next year,” she said.

The East Lansing Democrat supported Proposal 1, which will allow adults over the age of 21 to carry up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and grow up to 12 plants for personal use. Those provisions are set to take effect by early December, while licensing retail shops could take more than a year.

Spokesman Zack Pohl said “a legislative solution is probably the most likely avenue” for expunging low-level marijuana convictions. Whitmer will work with a Republican-controlled Legislature, and it’s not yet clear whether lawmakers will have any appetite to take up the issue.

“I think it’s a little unclear still in Michigan law what the governor’s authority is to expunge convictions for marijuana crimes, but... she thinks the people have spoken, and people who are serving sentences for a crime that’s now legal deserve some sort of remedy,” Pohl said.

While the marijuana legalization proposal spells out possession limits and license types, the executive branch will play a large role in implementing the law. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs will investigate business applicants and creates rules for testing, packaging and labeling that will govern the industry.

Snyder, who remains in office through the end of the year, said all three ballot proposals approved by voters on Tuesday “will impact numerous people, communities and industries throughout our state.”

“Now that the decisions have been made, it’s time to move forward,” he said. “State officials should begin their work in earnest to implement the new state laws and ensure the proper regulatory frameworks are in place.” 

Michigan will become the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana, joining early adopters like Colorado and Oregon, where retail sales began in 2015. The new state law requires the state to begin accepting business applications within one year.

“It’s on me to work with the attorney general to make sure we have thoughtful regulations that we promulgate, and that’s something that’s really important to me,” said Whitmer, referencing incoming Attorney General Dana Nessel, who was a vocal advocate for the legalization proposal.

“We can learn lessons from other states… so we can avoid some of the pitfalls they’ve encountered,” Whitmer continued. “I want to make sure children don’t have access to recreational marijuana, but I also want to make sure we collect those taxes and they are spent as the voters intended them to be.”

Once retail stores are up and operating, Michigan will impose a 10 percent excise tax on businesses that transfer marijuana with revenue going toward implementation costs, clinical research trials, schools, roads and local governments that allow marijuana businesses. Sales will also be subject to the state’s 6 percent sales tax.

The non-partisan Michigan Fiscal Agency projects the marijuana industry could generate more than $260 million a year in revenue for the state once fully implemented, including $140 million for the School Aid Fund and $63 million for the Michigan Transportation Fund.