Buss: Fill the potholes with pot

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

While Michiganians are focused on a possible sales tax hike to fund road repairs, a potential new source of road revenue is being overlooked: marijuana.

Polling shows more Michigan voters favor legalizing and regulating the drug like alcohol than hiking the sales tax.

It’s a bold — and controversial — idea.

But with support for legalized marijuana steadily climbing, it’s a matter of time before Michigan’s prohibition ends. And creating a legal market for a taxable product with dollars already circulating in the economy is more palatable than ever.

Fifty percent of Michigan voters approve legalizing marijuana, according to a recent EPIC-MRA poll, up 3 percent from 2013.

Many Michigan communities have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug, including Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.

Michigan could become the first state in the Midwest to legalize recreational use.

“Having good polling is a sign it can pass,” says Morgan Fox at the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, a think tank that works on state-based pot issues.

But it’ll have to be through a ballot proposal. That’s the next logical step, says Fox.

The Legislature has stalled attempts to broaden already-legal medicinal access to the drug. And no prominent political leaders are yet willing to stick their neck out for broader legalization, despite growing public support.

A ballot measure gives Michigan voters direct input, and could ensure the law is as economically beneficial as possible.

That’s the real outstanding factor in what is a clear trajectory toward legalization, says Matthew Abel, executive director of the Michigan Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Michigan NORML).

That means allowing regulated dispensaries without capping the number of licenses to prevent big companies or political favorites from solely befitting.

Discouraging crony capitalism with legal, open marijuana best kills the black market, prevents crime, and ensures fair pricing and quality.

It also allows the state to regulate it and bring in revenue from an industry already thriving, medicinally in Michigan, and legally elsewhere.

“People want to follow the law, when it comes down to it,” says Fox. “The quality control that you get from buying at licensed places is totally worth it for most people.”

Colorado’s ballot proposal passed, despite opposition from the governor and Legislature.

With no cap on growers or sellers, monthly retail sales hovered around $30 million for the latter part of 2014. The state brought in at least $50 million for the year from a 12.9 percent tax — so much it might issue a rebate to Coloradans.

Oregon last fall also legalized the drug with an uncapped ballot proposal. Taxes from regulated sales fund schools, social services and police departments.

Those opposed to expanding medicinal access in Michigan, including law enforcement, are concerned about the profit motive.

But there’s already a profit motive for the drug, the state’s just not benefiting. And businesses and individuals profit from other legal drugs, like alcohol.

“I compare craft (beers) to small growers, who don’t have the huge economies of scale and multi-millions of dollars to produce large crops,” says Abel.

Michigan’s craft brewery industry has boosted the state’s economy and is a priority for many, including the new state House GOP.

Surely fostering a diverse, legal marijuana market can be just as safe — and profitable — for a state in need of revenue.

Kaitlyn Buss is a Detroit News editorial writer. Reach her at kbuss@detroitnews.com or follow her @KaitlynBuss.