Mazi Smith, Michigan defensive lineman, charged with carrying concealed weapon

Opinion: Mich. can have smooth pot legalization

Alex Muresianu

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a difficult task ahead of her now that she’s taken office, since she’ll have to oversee the legalization of marijuana in Michigan. While recreational marijuana was officially legalized last month, the bureaucratic process of building a legal, taxable marijuana market has just begun. 

Some states like Massachusetts have given the black market a lifeline by taking years to license recreational marijuana dispensaries. In California, for instance, marijuana legalization hasn’t gone well since 2016, largely thanks to high taxes and complicated regulations on legal dispensaries — as well as local opposition to the opening of marijuana stores. The Michigan legislature needs to learn from these mistakes and avoid government overreach at both a state and local level.

Corey "the Bud-Tender" rolls a joint at a party celebrating the first day of legal recreational marijuana use, at the Cannabis Counsel in Detroit on the east side of Detroit on December 6, 2018

In some ways, Michigan is already on the right track. When it comes to marijuana tax rates, some states like California, Colorado and Washington placed high taxes — sometimes in excess of 30 percent — on newly legal sales. These taxes raised the price of marijuana enough to push smokers back to the black market, leading some states like California to receive much less tax revenue than they’d expected. In New York, when they raised the cigarette tax, tax collections fell by $400 million over five years and a shocking 57 percent of cigarettes were smuggled illegally into the state. It ended up costing the state over $1.5 billion in lost revenue annually.

Michigan's decision to place only a 10 percent additional sales tax on marijuana should help push the black market out of business, and the legislature should refuse any calls to raise that rate in order to raise revenue that probably won't materialize.

At the end of the day, it’s local opposition to marijuana sales that’s the most powerful barrier to successful legalization. In California, less than 20 percent of cities allow recreational marijuana dispensaries. In Los Angeles County, 82 of 88 cities don’t allow retail sales of marijuana. This intense level of local restriction led the Los Angeles Times editorial board to smartly declare that "marijuana is not really legal in California if residents don't have a reasonable way to buy it." Furthermore, the Orange County Register reported that many city governments have passed anti-legalization measures even when a vast majority of their city's population voted for marijuana legalization.

Massachusetts has a similar problem. Roughly 190 cities have passed either temporary freezes or permanent bans on marijuana dispensaries, even though over 100 of those areas voted for the state’s original legalization ballot measure. If marijuana legalization is to be successful, cities have to get on board. 

Michigan’s cities are raising some red flags here, too. As of Dec. 20, a few dozen cities have already opted out of the legal marijuana business. And according to Scott Greenlee, executive director of an anti-legalization advocacy group, roughly 100 more municipalities are considering opting out as well. In Birmingham and Royal Oak, city councils have decided to forgo retail marijuana locations, despite decisive "yes" votes in those cities on the ballot question in November.

Passing a ballot measure legalizing marijuana should not be thought of as the end of the battle to end marijuana prohibition — the fight has only just begun. Supporters of legalization cannot relax their efforts now, but must continue to fight in local governments and against the state bureaucracy to actually make the promise of a legal marijuana market a reality.

Alex Muresianu is a writer at Young Voices, a nonprofit public relations group.