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Michigan GOP ponders legalizing pot

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Some Michigan Republicans are considering legalizing marijuana through the Legislature rather than let an initiative make the statewide ballot this fall.

The move would quell GOP fears the ballot measure would boost Democratic voter turnout in November since legislative approval would ensure pot legalization would become law. A January poll showed majority support for pot legalization among surveyed likely voters in November.

Some GOP lawmakers aren’t ruling out approving marijuana legalization instead of letting the initiative make Michigan’s ballot this fall.

“I think everybody in this chamber has thought about that strategy,” said Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, shifted his tone this week on the marijuana proposal.

He previously downplayed rumors of potential action and told reporters he had not given any thought to the issue.

“We’ll see when it gets through the Secretary of State and the Board of Canvassers,” said Meekhof on Wednesday, referencing an ongoing signature review process, “and then we’ll see if that has any merit.”

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol filed roughly 365,000 signatures with the Bureau of Elections in late November. The signatures were not challenged by a Feb. 9 deadline and are awaiting likely approval by the Board of State Canvassers.

The Michigan Constitution gives legislators a 40-day window to consider legislation initiated by a petition drive.

They typically waive that window and allow measures to go on the ballot.

But there have been notable exceptions and legislative compromises, including a 2014 minimum wage increase Republicans approved to undercut a petition drive.

“We’ll see if they have the signatures — it looks likely they do — but we’ll let folks do their work on it, and it will come to us in a timely fashion,” Meekhof said.

The initiative would allow personal possession and use of marijuana by people older than 21 while regulating the distribution and commercial production of recreational marijuana.

Coalition spokesman Josh Hovey said ballot committee officials have “heard the same rumors” about potential legislative action but are not taking them seriously at this point. He told The Detroit News that Republicans have not reached out to the coalition to ask questions about the measure.

“It’s fine if they want to go ahead and pass it, but we need to prepare ourselves for a campaign,” Hovey said. “We just want the right thing to be done one way or another, and that right thing is ending marijuana prohibition in Michigan.”

‘Younger voter turnout’

The potential ballot proposal faces opposition from Healthy and Productive Michigan, a committee initially backed by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national nonprofit that has fought legalization efforts in other states.

“Marijuana is not a motivating issue for voters of any age, despite young people having an opinion on the subject when asked,” Smart Approaches to Marijuana President Kevin Sabet said in a Thursday email. “Legalization would be a disaster for Michigan’s roadways and workplace, and I’m confident voters will reject the initiative should it appear on the ballot.”

The Michigan Democratic Party has not endorsed the marijuana proposal. But likely attorney general nominee, Dana Nessel, is a strong proponent and has predicted it will boost voter turnout for the party in November.

Nessel, endorsed by marijuana legalization activists, rode a wave of youthful, progressive support into Sunday’s state Democratic convention in Detroit, where she won a party endorsement election over establishment favorite Pat Miles. The party did not reveal the final vote counts.

“There’s no doubt this will spur younger voter turnout,” said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell, “and the more young voters you get out, the better it is for Democrats. So it would be in the Republicans’ best interest to pass something legalizing marijuana.”

Mitchell noted Republican lawmakers could try to craft their own marijuana legalization measure if they don’t like the specifics of the initiative. It would not prevent the proposal from making the ballot but could undermine support, he said.

“Then you’d have to be spending a lot of money telling people why one proposal to legalize marijuana is better than another,” said Mitchell, whose wife works on marijuana policy with the Michigan Responsibility Council.

Voter motivation questions

A January poll of 600 likely Michigan voters pegged support for marijuana legalization at 57 percent. Support was stronger among Democrats than Republicans, according to the Glengariff Group poll, provided to The News and WDIV-TV, that had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

The survey showed marijuana could highly motivate voters younger than 30, said pollster Richard Czuba, who added that Democrats appear highly motivated to vote whether the pot proposal makes the ballot.

“I’m not sold on the fact that this is going to motivate Democratic voters to create this big tsunami,” Czuba said. “I think the seeds are already there for a big wave.”

Legislative action would require sign-off from GOP leadership in both chambers, including House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, who is seeking the party nomination for attorney general and personally opposes marijuana legalization.

Leonard said Thursday that House Republicans have not discussed the marijuana initiative or potential action. They are focused on other issues, including the budget and a legislative response to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University, he said.

“We haven’t talked about ballot proposals,” spokesman Gideon D’Assandro told The News. “If the Board of Canvassers sends stuff over, we’ll have to then have a conversation.”

Shirkey, who is poised to become Senate majority leader next year if Republicans maintain control of the upper chamber, said he would have to review the exact language of the marijuana legalization initiative before deciding whether he could vote for it.

“I’m not afraid of people,” he said when asked if Republicans are worried about turnout. “I hope people show up and vote. They have important decisions to make.”

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would be happy to discuss legalization with Republican lawmakers but is operating on the assumption they’ll let the measure advance to the ballot, Hovey said.

“Folks in the Legislature are so conservative they’d have a hard time doing something like this even though it does poll fairly well among Republicans,” he said. “Stranger things have happened.”

Some GOP lawmakers who support the strategy may still be reluctant to approve marijuana legislation because it could be a difficult vote to explain to constituents, Mitchell said. But if enough are willing to vote for legalization, they could seek support from minority Democrats to approve some kind of measure.

“This is something that Republicans will look at at some point if the initiative is not held up by legal challenges and is heading to the ballot,” Mitchell said. “You have to look at every single option.”


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Twitter: @jonathanoosting