Pro-pot groups to start gathering signatures for ballot

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A state elections panel Thursday approved for circulation two competing petitions seeking to put legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes on the November 2016 ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers approved the forms of the Michigan Cannabis Coalition and Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee to begin circulating petitions to collect the minimum 252,523 valid voter signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Both groups seek a voter-initiated law legalizing the cultivation, distribution, sale and personal consumption of cannabis for Michiganians 21 and older.

Federal law prohibits growing and possessing marijuana, but authorities have not stopped budding cannabis industries in four states and the District of Columbia where voters have approved ending the decades-old prohibition. Voters in five other states could vote in 2016 on whether to join Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in legalizing marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

A spokesman for the Michigan Cannabis Coalition said the Pontiac-based group would begin collecting signatures this weekend.

“Everything we’ve done has been with an eye on winning in November 2016,” said Matt Marsden, a Republican political consultant running the Michigan Cannabis Coalition.

The coalition, whose members are remaining anonymous at this point, proposes a law that regulates and taxes commercial-grade marijuana, while keeping the 2008 voter-approved medical cannabis law in place.

The group’s proposal relies on the Legislature to set a tax rate on marijuana sales, with all revenue dedicated to education, public health and public safety, Marsden said.

“That’s up to the Legislature,” Marsden said. “We’re giving them an opportunity to establish a revenue stream that’s untapped in Michigan. ... We don’t have many of those left.”

East Lansing attorney Jeffrey Hank, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District last year, is the main leader behind the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee, which wants to legalize the cultivation of marijuana and hemp.

The proposal from Hank’s group would establish a maximum 10 percent excise tax on marijuana, on top of the state’s 6 percent sales tax.

“We’ve seen the Legislature fail for seven or eight years now to adequately fix the issues with medical marijuana and we can’t give them another 10 years to get this right,” Hank told reporters. “So what we want to do is create ground rules at the start, let this industry take off, give it some breathing room.”

Hank’s proposal calls for 40 percent of marijuana tax revenue to be directed to the Michigan Department of Transportation, 40 percent for the state’s School Aid Fund and the remaining 20 percent for cities where the cannabis is sold.

Marsden said his group’s proposal does not mandate a special tax on marijuana.

“Our opponent mandates a tax,” Marsden said.

Another major difference between the two proposals is the number of marijuana plants an individual could legally grow for recreational consumption.

Hank’s group is seeking a 12-plant limit for homegrowing, while Marsden’s group wants a two-plant limit and the ability for municipalities to permit more marijuana plants in homes at an added fee.

“I believe two plants at home is a reasonable amount of plants for an individual to grow,” Marsden said. “I can’t eat more than two heirloom tomato plants in a given summer. I don’t know if you need more than two marijuana plants to satisfy your home needs.”

The Michigan Cannabis Coalition proposal would allow local governments to prohibit residential cultivation of marijuana. Both proposals would require a state license to grow marijuana for commercial sales.

Hank said the group is a coalition of Michigan’s leading marijuana legalization advocates who have successfully won decriminalization ballot initiatives in cities across the state. The group plans to begin gathering voter signatures after a June 26 campaign fundraiser in Ann Arbor, Hank said.

Both proposals would leave marijuana for medical purposes untaxed.

“We’re not negatively campaigning against anyone else,” Hank said.

The Detroit News reported in April on the emergence of competing groups seeking legalization of marijuana on the November 2016.

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.

The four-member bipartisan Board of State Canvassers only approved the format of the petitions as being within the bounds of state law.

But some members expressed concern about the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee’s proposed law being printed on a single sheet in tiny font.

“I think this is a terrible disservice to people reading this petition,” said Julie Matuzak, a Democratic member of the panel.

State Elections Director Chris Thomas recommended the board not approve the petition, but the canvassers decided it still met the legal requirements.

“We believe the petition is readable,” said Hank, who wears glasses. “I have terrible eyesight and I can read this fairly well.”

By comparison, the Michigan Cannabis Coalition’s proposed law was printed on two pages attached to the petition for voters to read using a larger type size font.

“The citizens can actually read what we’ve put on paper,” Marsden said in a jab at Hank’s group.

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