3 Michigan groups seek legal recreational pot use

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The race is on to get legalization of recreational marijuana use in Michigan on the November 2016 ballot — or through the Legislature before then.

Three different groups are considering voter-initiated laws to legalize the cultivation, distribution, sale and personal consumption of cannabis for Michiganians age 21 and older. A state lawmaker from Ann Arbor plans to introduce a marijuana legalization bill this month.

The Michigan Cannabis Coalition, whose members are remaining anonymous at this point, plan to submit ballot language Thursday to the Secretary of State's Office to legalize, regulate and tax commercial-grade marijuana, while keeping the 2008 voter-approved medical cannabis law in place.

The group believes marijuana could be a cash crop for Michigan's agriculture industry — and the coffers of state government.

"What this is about is generating revenue for the state of Michigan," said Matt Marsden, a Republican political consultant serving as the group's spokesman.

The Michigan Cannabis Coalition hopes to get approval from the Board of State Canvassers in May so it can begin gathering the 252,523 voter signatures required to get on the November 2016 ballot.

Under the proposed Michigan Cannabis Control & Revenue Act, marijuana could be grown in licensed facilities zoned for agriculture or industrial use only and sold at licensed retail dispensaries. Homegrown cannabis would be restricted to two plants, unless a municipality chooses to allow more and apply extra fees. All marijuana taxes would be dedicated to education, public health and public safety, Marsden said.

Another group called the Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee is weeks away from submitting its own petition language for approval by state election officials, said Jeffrey Hank, the group's chairman.

A third group, the Michigan Responsibility Council, which is headed by two prominent Oakland County Republican consultants, is studying how to create a tightly regulated marijuana distribution system akin to the state's three-tier liquor control law, with a limited number of licensed growers and retailers.

"Not everybody loves the three-tier system, but most people would look at it and say it's done pretty well for the people of Michigan all of these years," said Paul Welday, a Republican political consultant advising the Michigan Responsibility Council.

Welday's group has not decided whether to pursue a ballot initiative. "But if and when we do go in that direction, we're going to be in it to win it," he said.

The differing approaches to legalizing the drug after decades of prohibition and black market street sales is creating tensions between longtime advocates and budding cannabis entrepreneurs.

"We don't want that kind of cartel, monopoly model," Hank said of a system mirroring the liquor distribution system. "The big difference between us and these other groups is we're more of a free-market model."

Racing to beat Ohio

Cannabis advocates in all three groups are jockeying to make Michigan the fifth state to defy the federal prohibition on marijuana, following Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Michigan already is among 18 states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

"There could be two or three initiatives and that's going to be very interesting if there are," said Hank, an East Lansing attorney.

In neighboring Ohio, a group is racing to gather signatures this spring to get a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana on the Nov. 3 ballot. "I don't want people leaving here to go to Toledo to buy something that could be grown here," Marsden said.

If either group gets enough signatures to qualify for the November 2016 Michigan ballot, the Legislature would have 40 session days to decide whether to adopt the proposed law or let voters decide.

"I don't know if they have the political temperament to take this up, as some wish they might," Welday said of lawmakers.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, plans to introduce legislation later this month that "builds off of the Colorado model," but learns from that state's troubles.

"One of the mistakes Colorado made was they set their tax too high," Irwin said. "They made it too hard for people to convert their activities into a legal business."

Colorado has a higher tax on recreational marijuana than cannabis sold for medical purposes, causing some residents to get "discount weed" through the medicinal system, said Tim Hoover, communications director at the Colorado Fiscal Institute.

Fiscal analysts in the Colorado Legislature estimate the state will collect $58.7 million this fiscal year in marijuana taxes — far less than the original $67 million estimate and not the hundreds of millions in revenue that some predicted when voters there legalized it in November 2012.

"The idea that it's going to be gold-plating schools and paving roads with granite, that's just unrealistic," Hoover said. "It's not some panacea revenue source, even if the best case scenario had worked out, which it didn't."

A 'pragmatic approach'

The growing interest in putting a marijuana legalization question on the ballot next year is fueled by changing public perception toward marijuana and drug enforcement policies.

"Personally, I think that train's already left the station," said Fred Timpner, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police.

Timpner, a former Southfield police officer, said his group of 2,100 unionized police officers is not taking a position on legalization of marijuana, but favors any approach that would dedicate revenue to cash-strapped local police agencies across the state.

"If you're going to do it, tax it and give the revenue stream dedicated to public safety," Timpner said.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who says he's never smoked marijuana, spoke at Saturday's annual Hash Bash pro-marijuana rally on the Diag at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate favors legalization, arguing that law enforcement of marijuana prohibition has "failed" and is "a waste of resources" for cash-strapped cities like his.

"The pragmatic approach is to pull it out of the shadows, where you can shine the light of day and regulate it," Bernero said. " Change is in the air — not just the haze."