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Detroit group sues over signature requirement to place pot ordinance on Nov. ballot

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Detroit-based group is suing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state election officials, claiming Michigan’s stay-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic prevented members from collecting enough signatures to place a recreational marijuana ordinance on the November ballot. 

The members of Detroit Unity Fund also allege authorities are ignoring a federal judge’s ruling last month in a similar case involving a group that fell short in gathering signatures.

The group had until Tuesday to collect the signatures.

“There is, under these unprecedented circumstances, absolutely no compelling or legitimate state interest to enforce the Filing Deadline and signature requirement, and to do so is unconstitutional,” said Michael Griffie, the group’s attorney, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

The filing is by Detroit Unity Fund, a social welfare organization whose registered agent is Virgil Smith, a former state lawmaker.

The group aimed to collect more than 9,700 signatures before Tuesday’s deadline to place the recreational marijuana ordinance on the Nov. 3 ballot in Detroit.

That figure represents 5% of the votes cast for governor in the city during the last gubernatorial election as required by the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act to petition to initiate an ordinance, according to the complaint.

The ordinance aims to "increase much needed tax revenue to the City of Detroit and provide social equity considerations to those affected by the prohibition of" marijuana, the filing said.

Despite “working diligently,” the group has collected approximately 4,913 valid signatures, Griffie wrote.

“Collecting signatures is a time-consuming process, which requires close contact with electors who reside in the state,” the suit said. “Governor Whitmer's Stay-home Order has made it impossible to collect the required number of elector signatures by July 28, 2020.

"… The enforcement of that Deadline under these unprecedented circumstances, considering the Stay-home Order, is unconstitutional because it imposes signature requirements upon the Plaintiffs, and simultaneously strips them of the ability to meet those requirements.”

In an email to The Detroit News, Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said: “Our practice is not to comment on pending litigation.”

The lawsuit, which also lists Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, claims elections officials refuse to “unilaterally apply” a recent federal ruling.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman ruled Michigan cannot exclude from the November ballot a proposed initiative by the group SawariMedia, which sought to restore “good time” credits so prisoners can get early release for good behavior, based on missing the signature threshold.

The group later halted its legal effort challenging the state’s benchmark after realizing it had far fewer signatures than originally reported.

“Defendants' refusal to apply the same rules to ballot initiative petitions that were ordered to be applied … will deny voters, including the Plaintiffs, with the opportunity to vote on an issue they worked diligently to get on the ballot,” Griffie wrote.

Representatives with Benson's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. It also requests an additional 30 days for Detroit Unity Fund to comply with the signature requirement.