Finley: Legislature should rewrite pot law

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

It's a heavy lift, but there's still an opportunity to get Michigan's recreational marijuana law right before the amendment passed by voters last month goes into widespread effect.

It is no longer illegal to possess or sell pot in Michigan. That's one of the few things the new law gets right.

But fixes are needed, and lawmakers can make them -- if they can get three-fourths of the Legislature to agree. Obtaining a supermajority is a massive undertaking. But it's worth the effort. 

Putting the law in place as is invites enforcement headaches, unduly burdens marijuana consumers and cheats the state of the revenue windfall legalization promised. 

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof tried to raise bipartisan support in the lame duck session for a rewrite of the measure. He doesn't like the provision that allows individuals to grow up to a dozen plants and share the harvest with their friends. The effort failed.

Still, Meekhof is right that the provision will make enforcement of pot regulations tougher. Keeping marijuana away from minors and controlling content of the product will be more difficult if it moves through a de facto black market.

Supporters of the ballot proposal compare the backyard pot gardeners to basement beer brewers or amateur wine makers. They're not the same, and shouldn't be treated as such. 

The better comparison is to making moonshine in a personal still, which is illegal without a permit. 

That's just one problem with the bill. 

Even though marijuana commerce will be conducted in a legal environment, consumers won't have easy access, and will still be stigmatized. Purchases can only be made at stand-alone licensed outlets.

If the way medical marijuana was implemented is a guide, those dispensaries will be heavily concentrated in urban neighborhoods far away from the customer base.  

A better approach is to allow a variety of retailers to apply for recreational marijuana licenses and sell it along with other merchandise. That's how liquor is treated. 

The most egregious part of the act as it currently stands is that it sets a too low tax rate on marijuana sales.

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

Sponsors of the proposal wrote in their own tax rate -- a 10 percent excise tax added to the 6 percent sales tax. That's a great deal for them. But not for the state. It's the lowest rate of any state where recreational sales are legal.

Washington taxes pot at 37 percent, Colorado at 30 percent, California at 27 percent, Nevada at 25 percent and Oregon at 17 percent.

Not only does the act set the rate, it decides how the revenue will be distributed between the state, counties and local communities.

Those who hoped a pot windfall would fill Michigan's potholes will be disappointed; the low rate and distribution formula won't generate enough taxes.

There's also no provision in the act to pardon those who are serving time on marijuana charges. If pot is now being sold and used legally, justice demands that those imprisoned for selling and using marijuana be freed. A rewrite of the law should put in place a process for doing so.

The new Legislature when it returns in January should not subvert voter intent that recreational marijuana be legal in Michigan. But it should act to make sure legalization best serves both the state and consumers.

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