Marijuana group files signatures for Mich. proposal

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A group seeking to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan turned in roughly 365,000 signatures to the state Monday, setting the stage for a potential 2018 ballot proposal and campaign that organizers say could cost millions of dollars.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections will review the signatures to determine if at least 252,523 are valid, as required to advance the initiated legislation.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol raised and spent nearly $1 million during its statewide petition drive and hopes to raise about $8 million more for the campaign, said spokesman Josh Hovey.

“We need to keep on raising money and do what we need to do to continue to communicate with voters across the state, and that doesn’t come cheap,” he said.

The proposal would regulate marijuana production and retail sales in Michigan, building on the state’s new system for licensing medical marijuana businesses. It calls for a 10 percent excise tax, with revenue dedicated to roads, schools and local governments.

Residents could generally carry up to 2.5 ounces of the drug or possess up to 10 ounces in their homes, but smoking would not be allowed on public sidewalks.

The legalization committee has several hurdles to clear before its measure qualifies for the 2018 ballot, beginning with a state review process that Secretary of Spokesman Fred Woodhams said could take about 60 days.

Bureau of Elections staff will pull a random sample of signatures and make them public, allowing for potential challenges to their validity. The bureau will then prepare a report for the Board of State Canvassers, which will decide whether to approve the signature submission.

Hovey told reporters the group is confident in its signatures. Most were collected by paid circulators with National Petition Management of Brighton, which validated signatures as they were turned in. Others were collected by volunteers, including those with the activist-led MI Legalize group that ran its own petition drive in 2016.

“We worked with some of the best election lawyers in the state in terms of drafting the ballot initiative itself,” Hovey said. “So we’re very confident that the language itself will be standing up to a legal challenge.

If advanced by the Board of State Canvassers, the Michigan Legislature would have 40 session days to approve or reject the measure. If legislators do nothing, it would go to the November 2018 general election ballot. If they propose an alternative, both measures would go before voters.

Former state Rep. Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat serving as political director for the ballot committee, said he does not anticipate action by the state Legislature.

“The public is way ahead of the political class on this issue,” he said. “The public knows that cannabis prohibition is the granddaddy of all failed big-government programs.”

While some law enforcement officials have raised concerns with the marijuana proposal, it has not yet faced any significant organized opposition. A group called the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools had raised $5,000 through Oct. 20, according to state records.

Chris DeWitt, a spokesman for the opposition group, issued a statement Monday calling the legalization proposal “ill-advised and not in the public interest.”

While the proposal would regulate the legalized commercial marketplace, it would also allow adults to group up to 12 marijuana plants inside their home for personal use without a license.

DeWitt argued the home-grow provision would allow “mass quantities of unregulated, untested, and untaxed marijuana to be grown by anybody anywhere; creating a true black market for illegal drugs.”

Pot legalization proposals in other states have prompted expensive fights, and Michigan organizers expect the same here.

“Whether they can raise the money or not we’ll have to see, but I think we have to plan and do the work to assume there’s going to be a very strong opposition,” Hovey said.

While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, Michigan voters legalized medical use in 2008. Voters in eight other states have subsequently approved recreational marijuana laws.

Colorado was the first state to implement legalization, with retail sales beginning in 2014. Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage this month vetoed legislation to regulate and tax the drug despite voters last year approving a legalization measure.

Michigan could be the only state in the Midwest with a recreational proposal on the ballot in 2018, Hovey said, making it a potential battleground for interest groups around the country that support or oppose legalization.

“We’re working to attract national interest on our side of things,” he said. “I’m sure there’s opposition groups that will be doing the same thing.”