The petition drive to place legalized marijuana on the November 2018 ballot in Michigan is underway.
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol believes Michigan could become a national model for the sensible regulation of marijuana. Critics believe the social consequences of pot could outweigh its economic rewards.
The midday lunch crowd shuffles in and out of the street side restaurants along Grand River in downtown East Lansing. It’s a great place for people watching – and petitioning. Today a volunteer with the campaign to make recreational marijuana legal in Michigan is canvassing this spot in search of signatures.
One man stops to consider the offer. He chooses not to be identified. He has mixed feelings towards marijuana.
“I think that people should be able to make choices like they do with alcohol and that some people can do this recreationally and responsibly; a lot of people can,” he says. “But I’m also very familiar with 12-step programs, and I know people in them who’ve become addicted to marijuana.”
Does he pick up the pen for the cannabis cause? Let’s clip that thought for now.
Legalization advocates in Michigan say they’ve heard all the pot put-downs.
“My favorite statistic is, you’re more likely to die from a coconut falling on your head than you are from marijuana,” says attorney Jeff Hank.
Hank is the executive director of MI Legalize. In 2016, his group collected 354,000 signatures in support of legalization. The Michigan State Board of Canvassers ruled some of them to be invalid on a technicality, so the proposal never advanced. Now, Hank and his team have joined a larger group, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
The coalition wants to see the state put a 10 percent excise tax and a six percent sales tax on legalized marijuana. Hank says a mainstream retail pot industry would create thousands of jobs and boost Michigan’s economy.
“Those jobs will then help reinvigorate our local communities, and the tax revenue from this proposal will go into fixing schools and funding roads and bridges and going back to counties and local governments, which everybody acknowledges are hurting,” he says.
The proposal creates classifications of growers, and regulates how much marijuana people over 21 years old may possess and store in their homes.
Hank says legalized marijuana would prevent 20,000 arrests made each year in Michigan.
Despite that claim, some law enforcement officials don’t see a net gain.
Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene is president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
Reene points to Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana back in 2012. He says teen addiction, emergency room visits and traffic fatalities dramatically increased after the approval. Reene questions how Michigan could not possibly follow down the same road.
“Studies have shown that one in 10 individuals who use marijuana become addicted to it,” Reene says. “So, you have real numbers and real impact towards what objective? How does this help us? How does it make Michigan a better place?”
The Michigan coalition -- and the national Marijuana Policy Project, which helped launch the Colorado movement -- say Reene’s claims simply aren’t true. They assert the science proves marijuana is a safer substance than alcohol.
Jeff Hank believes people who personally don’t like marijuana will reap its financial dividends with better roads and schools. Hank also believes this campaign will gain strong support even from within the law enforcement community.
“But you know, a judge’s obligation is to uphold the law. Right now as the law is written, it’s bad policy. So, we think we’ll have a lot of support from law enforcement. They may not publicly be able to say that, like street-level police officers, but a lot of them feel that way.”
So, remember our man on the street in East Lansing, pondering the pot petition? Turns out, he’s in favor of putting the issue to the voters. Apparently, he’s heard a better sales pitch this time around.
“Last year I didn’t sign because the guy that was taking the petition, when I talked with him he said that at least marijuana wasn’t habit forming, and I know that isn’t true for some people,” he says. “This guy, I talked with him and he was more articulate. So this year I’m 51 percent.”
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol must gather 252,523 signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot. The group plans to submit its petition by the end of this year.