by Rick Thompson
April 29, 2018
When the Michigan Board of State Canvassers certified on Thursday that the petitions submitted by the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA) contained enough signatures to qualify for the November general election, advocates cheered and cameras rolled. The legalization proposal is just the latest issue keeping marijuana in the hearts of citizens, in the minds of state lawmakers and on the front page of newspapers- but not everything is going according to plan.
THE ADULT USE PROPOSAL
The annual value of legalized and medical marijuana in Michigan has been estimated at one billion dollars. That’s an incredibly powerful incentive for people to change their minds on the issue of recreational marijuana, and Michigan citizens are evolving their attitudes toward cannabis at a record pace.
Polling data from 2018 indicates marijuana legalization enjoys strong support among the state’s voters. In January a poll showed 57% support for an adult use of cannabis law, and in March a poll by NORML of Michigan and the EPIC-MRA research group found 61% support, a record high approval rating.
Thursday’s certification of the cannabis legalization petition submitted by the CRMLA was hailed as a guarantee that the issue will appear on the 2018 Michigan ballot. With favorable polling and no other obstacles, it would seem the adult use issue is going to appear before voters and be a big hit in November.
Not so fast, say Michigan lawmakers.
Republicans are already fearful of the impending ‘Blue Wave’ of Democratic supporters crashing the party at this year’s general election. Rumors began circulating in early April about a plan where Republican lawmakers would legislatively adopt the CRMLA legalization language into law just to stop the ‘Green Wave’ of single-issue cannabis voters from flooding the polls in November.
Michigan law allows for a 40 session day period after Board certification in which the House and Senate can adopt the language as is. If adopted by the legislature, the proposal would not be on the November ballot.
Via this method, the legalization proposal could be passed by a simple majority of the House and Senate. Because it is initiated legislation the cannabis legalization proposal would not be subject to a veto by Governor Snyder.
Still, passing the legalization bill would have to depend on votes from lawmakers who do not normally support the issue. Many of those lawmakers are facing reelection in a few short months, so endorsing a proposal they have been cold to is very risky. Speaker of the House Tom Leonard does not support marijuana legalization nor does he want the legislature to adopt the proposal. “I don’t anticipate it happening. There’s not much support in the caucus for it and I personally do not support it,” the Republican told the Detroit Free Press.
Neither does Macomb County Republican Representative Peter Lucido. “I didn’t go to Lansing to sit around voting pot in,” he told Fox 2 News on April 26. He later added, “The GOP that I sit with don’t think it is a done deal.”
THE GREEN WAVE
Still other lawmakers feel that voting for the legalization proposal would be worth it to keep the issue from dominating the 2018 election conversation. Some simple math illustrates why these powerful elected officials are frightened by the Green Wave.
One pundit estimated that the 2018 election could see up to a 3% increase in voter participation, simply because of the marijuana legalization proposal. In 2014, the last general election featuring a gubernatorial race, 3,156,531 Michiganders cast votes. Current Michigan Governor Rick Snyder narrowly defeated his opponent Mark Schauer in that contest by 128,130 votes.
If in fact the cannabis proposal bumps up electoral turnout by 3%, nearly 95,000 additional voters would be drawn to the polls- almost 3/4 of last contest’s winning margin. Elections are often won by a thin margin; in 2016 Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan’s election by only 10,704 votes.
No wonder the legislature’s Republicans have given serious consideration to voting for the marijuana proposal.
It would be difficult to imagine nearly 100,000 motivated pro-cannabis voters casting ballots in favor of Republican candidates in the state’s top contests. Of the two men most likely to get the nomination as Republican candidate for governor, neither are friendly to marijuana legalization and the odds-on favorite to win the endorsement is a long-term cannabis foe. Bill Schuette was vocally against the medical marijuana proposal in 2008. He was elected to Attorney General shortly after, and his efforts to restrict the new medical program- both overt and subtle- have persisted throughout his tenure.
Tom Leonard is the presumptive nominee to win the Republican endorsement in the race for Attorney General. The other frequently-discussed candidate for the nomination is Senator Tonya Schuitmacker, whose votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee indicate a strong dislike for cannabis liberalization.
Contrast that to the list of Democratic hopefuls for the state’s top nominations, all of whom have come out in favor of marijuana legalization.
It’s a three way race for the Michigan Democratic Party’s nomination for governor. Shri Thanendar, the millionaire longshot candidate, displayed large signs supporting legalized marijuana during the Democratic Convention on April 15. Abdul El-Sayed has won the endorsement of the party’s Progressive Caucus and gave a fiery speech on stage at this year’s Hash Bash. The party’s most likely nominee is Gretchen Whitmer, who also spoke with emotion at the Hash Bash; she has a record of voting for and advocating in favor of cannabis laws during her eight years in the Michigan Senate.
Both of Michigan’s US Senators have declared support for marijuana legalization.
“Senator Peters supports the ballot initiative effort underway in the state to legalize marijuana for recreational use,” a spokesperson told VICE just after the Democratic Convention. Gary Peters has voted in the past for pro-cannabis legislation at a federal level.
Senator Debbie Stabenow is not considered a strong supporter of cannabis issues. Earlier in 2018 NORML issued a national ranking of all Senators and House Representatives based on their Congressional performance; Stabenow received a “D” grade. Her spokesperson, however, sided with the idea of legalization, telling VICE, “It’s time to decriminalize medical and recreational marijuana.”
That is an awkward declaration in itself, since medical marijuana has been decriminalized in Michigan for nearly ten years already. The Stabenow statement may indicate how obligatory it has become for Democrats to profess support for the Green Wave, even if the office holder has no zeal for the topic.
The predicted Green Wave of single-issue cannabis voters would certainly support the candidates in top-of-the-ticket races who have publicly endorsed their favorite topic. At this point in time, that favors the Democrats in a big way.
ATTORNEY GENERAL’S RACE
Nowhere has the impact of the cannabis movement in Michigan been more strongly illustrated than this year’s race for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General.
It was a battle between former prosecutors as Dana Nessel (Wayne County) and Patrick Miles (the federal Western District of Michigan) both claimed experience on the front lines of the Drug War. Nessel adopted a pro-cannabis stance at the onset of her campaign, even including the subject in her launch speech. Miles was initially reluctant to talk about the subject, and when pressed used generic answers that mirrored conservative talking points.
Nessel’s campaign was embraced by cannabis liberalization leaders in the state. The MILegalize organization issued their first-ever candidate endorsement for Nessel, which was greeted with enthusiasm by the cannabis community and was lauded by the campaign. Her unabashed endorsement of the legalization proposal helped to lift her in the polls, and Miles was forced to evolve his public stance on the issue in order to remain competitive. He famously changed his answer in the middle of an interview with Michigan Radio, asking at the end of the segment if he could provide a better “sound-bite” on the subject of asset forfeiture reform.
As a federal prosecutor Miles had pursued charges and secured convictions against a group of men known as the Okemos 7 for actions they engaged in under the protections of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. Miles pursued the case even though a state investigation found no offenses worthy of criminal charges and despite the Obama adminstration’s hands-off approach to state legal cannabis activity.
Cannabis law reform advocates made Miles pay for his actions against the Okemos 7.
Despite a crushing ice storm that froze the entire state north of Oakland County, the Democratic Convention at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on April 15 saw more than 6,700 credentialed members attend– a new record. The convention featured only one vote of the general assembly, and that was for the Attorney General’s nomination.
The roar of the Nessel supporters drown out the best effort by the Miles supporters in hallways and caucus meetings; in the end the vote wasn’t even close.
Just shortly before announcing her run for the A.G. spot Nessel had taken a case of LGBT rights all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Nessel, herself a member of the LGBT community, beat current Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in court and won the case for her clients. On stage during Dana Nessel’s acceptance speech at Cobo Hall were LGBT supporters, cannabis rights advocates and a member of the Okemos 7.
Mainstream media and Nessel herself have credited the cannabis community for lifting the candidate’s pre-Convention polling numbers and inflating attendance at Cobo Hall. These admissions of the power of the cannabis voting bloc in Michigan are part of what drove House and Senate Republicans to consider adopting the CRMLA legalization proposal- but there is another equally compelling indicator of the cannabis industry’s rise to power in Michigan.
THE NEW CANNABIS BUSINESS MARKET
In 2016 the legislature passed a long-suffering group of bills and enacted the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act (MMFLA). This Act moves the nine-year old semi-legal, unregulated patient services industry into a regulated and taxed business program worth an estimated $837 million annually.
On December 15, 2017 the state’s Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation (BMMR) began accepting applications for business licenses in five regulated cannabis industries. The first licenses are expected to be issued in May of 2018; over 80 communities throughout Michigan have passed ordinances opting in to the business program. Constituents are demanding a change in attitude among their elected officials and communities are ramping up for a financial windfall.
Those cannabis-supporting constituents are appearing in the least likely districts, too. The Saginaw Bay Region, for example, has been bereft of support for its medical marijuana patients during the entire medical marijuana era in Michigan. No grey market cannabis dispensary has remained open for long in Midland, Bay or Saginaw Counties. In the NORML of Michigan poll from March, that region showed the highest degree of support for the legalization proposal of any region in the survey- 79%. Communities in Bay County are lining up to benefit from the new cannabis business market as fast as any other county in the state.
The lure of financial gain has brought more converts to the cause of marijuana law reform than the impassioned pleas of the ill ever could. This scenario is common in all states where cannabis laws are being reformed, and that lure has sparked a national explosion of law reform measures in the last few years.
Michigan’s legalization initiative is the top fight on the 2018 American cannabis campaign roster. The undercard is filled with local ordinances, new medical marijuana laws and modifications of existing state programs but Michigan seems to be the only state where voters will decide an adult use of cannabis proposal in 2018. National cannabis law reform figures have been giving the state extra attention because of it.
Some of those events featuring national cannabis industry figures include:
- In December representatives of the Tikun Olam group gathered Michigan cannabis leadership together to discuss bringing their Israeli research and products to Michigan Universities and markets.
- Rep.Earl Blumenauer of Oregon came to Ann Arbor’s Om of Medicine to meet with the movement’s thought leaders on how to support pro-cannabis candidates and advance federal law reform efforts.
- Two lawmakers representing other states authored letters which were read to the attendees of Hash Bash, Rep. Jared Polis and Blumenauer.
- Noted scientists, educators and professional athletes held a seminar at the University of Michigan to advocate for a more permissive stance toward cannabis in sports.
The attention being paid to Michigan’s legalization movement is not all supportive.
Efforts are already underway to counter the power of the cannabis vote in 2018. One strategy involves an aggressive public relations campaign in the lead-up to the November election. A national group has already invested $150,000 to support an anti-legalization group called ‘Healthy and Productive Michigan,’ whose main argument against legalization seems to be that federal law prohibits any form of legitimate cannabis use.
On the Michigan legalization proposal Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana said, “We’re gearing up for a fight.”
Another end-around run on the marijuana legalization proposal could come via the legislature. In this scenario the legalization proposal would pass in November, after which lawmakers would quickly pass a bill to “fix” some of the proposal’s language to make it more business-centric.
The half-dozen weeks between the general election and the end of the two-year legislative cycle is called the lame duck session. It’s called that because any legislator who either lost their election or has retired from their elected office has these few slender days where they can vote any way they want without consequence to themselves or their party. The party in power uses this time to pass unpopular bills, essentially waiting until after the election to do a lot of things they know people will not support.
It would be in this brief window of time that this fix-it scenario would play out. This idea of using the lame duck session to make the proposal more Republican has been advanced in media by powerful party leaders. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said,” We’re asking about it.” Term-limited former Sheriff, Sen. Rick Jones, said he would welcome the opportunity to “perfect the law” in the lame duck session.
This path has a low chance of success, as any amendment to a law enacted through the petition process must receive a 3/4 vote of all House Representatives and Senators. That feat would require Democratic participation. Democratic Senators Coleman A. Young Jr. and Jim Ananich have both spoken out against the idea of legislative meddling with the proposal prior to the election, and are expected to be opposed to legislative meddling after the vote as well.
With billions of dollars at stake and a rapidly-evolving citizen mindset, Michigan is ripe for cannabis law reform efforts in 2018. The MMFLA program, the legalization proposal and the character of the state’s elected officials will keep the subject in the news long after the votes are cast in November and the legislature has dismissed until 2019. Marijuana is the new litmus test for Democratic candidates; cities are becoming dependent upon cannabis industry licensing fees; and Michigan politics will never be the same again.