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Michigan pot legalization push coming ‘very, very soon’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A Michigan coalition with national backing is readying plans to launch a marijuana legalization petition drive “very, very soon” after a leading state activist group this week endorsed potential 2018 ballot language.

MI Legalize announced its support Tuesday, ending a dispute that had threatened to derail the effort or splinter supporters into two camps.

The breakthrough means the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol remains on track to seek petition form approval from the Michigan Bureau of Elections in the near future, said political director and former state Rep. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor.

“The announcement they’re on board is great news,” Irwin told The Detroit News. “It indicates that along with them and some other groups, we’re on a path to submit language, and Michigan has an opportunity to end prohibition.”

The Marijuana Policy Project, a national group based in Washington, D.C., announced in December that it was forming an advisory committee in Michigan to start working with business owners, patients, activists and other interested parties across the state to draft a potential proposal.

The Policy Project helped finance winning legalization campaigns in Colorado and Alaska in 2014. Last year, it helped raise money for voter-approved proposals in Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. It also contributed to a successful campaign in California and supported an initiative in Arizona that was narrowly defeated.

There is no organized opposition to the potential Michigan ballot proposal at this early stage, but some law enforcement officials remain wary of marijuana legalization and have expressed concerns about public safety.

New U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally opposes marijuana use but has not given any indication of a pending federal crackdown. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, but the Obama administration adopted a hands-off approach for states with medical or recreational laws.

MI Legalize, which failed to get a legalization question on the Michigan ballot in 2016, opposed early drafts of the potential 2018 proposal, arguing it favored business interests over free markets.

“These guys tried to come in and basically buy a monopoly to collect taxes,” said MI Legalize chairman Jeff Hank. The Michigan group is now “sort of reluctantly” backing the language after making “substantial progress” in negotiations, he said.

Final language has not yet been made public, but MI Legalize says they are not planning to pursue their own separate proposal for 2018, and will instead pour a large chunk of the money they’ve already raised into the coalition effort.

“This was a long, involved process with a lot of different perspectives, and in totality, we agreed as a group that being part of the unified effort, and combining resources, is the best course of action,” said board member Jamie Lowell.

The proposal will generally seek to legalize recreational marijuana use and possession for adults and allow them to grow a limited number of plants at home. The state would also license businesses and tax marijuana sales.

An earlier draft of the proposal called for a wholesale tax — $20 per ounce of dried flower or $6.75 per ounce of dried leaves — with revenue going to community colleges, vocational schools and local governments that “opt in” and allow marijuana businesses to operate. Sales would also be subject to the state’s 6 percent sales tax.

“The core of it has been the very same from the beginning: End the 20,000 arrests, allow people to use and possess marijuana and take our huge wasted effort to try and accomplish prohibition and convert that into an investment in prosperity and a better state,” Irwin said. “That’s the kernel for this idea, and none of that is changing.”

Scott Chipman, of the California-based national advocacy group Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said the drug is “much more dangerous” than most people realize and can lead to problems such as addiction, brain impairment, amotivational syndrome and impaired driving crashes.

“Those that try to sell the public on legalization, including state ballot officials, never count the social costs of the drug,” Chipman said. “These costs include but are not limited to the cost of addiction and treatment, child endangerment, lost productivity, school dropouts, impaired driving crashes, lower earning potential of users, less safe work places.”

The Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is gearing up to submit petitions soon but does not yet have a date set, Irwin said. If approved for circulation, organizers would need to collect 252,523 valid signatures within a 180-day window to advance the initiative to the Legislature and eventually the ballot.

Successful Michigan petition drives typically cost more than $1 million and use paid petition circulators.

Campaign finance reports filed this week show the coalition raised $140,600 through April 20, including a $12,500 contribution in February from Lawrence Jaramillo of Okemos, owner of Wholesale Hydroponics. The Marijuana Policy Project has itemized more than $40,000 of in-kind contributions for its work in the state.

MI Legalize reported raising another $103,000 for its own ballot committee through April 20, and organizers say they have additional resources lined up.

The 2018 ballot proposal season is expected to heat up in coming weeks as organizers look to circulate petitions during the warm summer months.

Hank is part of a separate “Keep Our Lakes Great” group that won pre-approval this week to begin circulating a petition seeking to ban the flow of crude oil through Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

Elections attorney John Pirich said Wednesday he’s preparing to submit two petitions to the Board of State Canvassers — one proposing initiated legislation and the other for a potential amendment to the Michigan Constitution.

Pirich declined to discuss details of the pending petitions until his clients are prepared to publicly announce their efforts. As of Friday morning, no additional petitions had been submitted to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

joosting@detroitnews.com