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3 groups, 3 different approaches to pot legalization in 2016

Aug 24, 2015

Credit Flickr user A7nubis / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Getting high in Michigan has certainly changed over the past few years.

Voters legalized marijuana for medical purposes in Michigan in 2008. Soon, it could be legal just for fun.

A number of groups seeking to legalize cannabis in Michigan are working to put ballot proposals on the 2016 ballot.

Michigan Public Radio Network's Jake Neher has been covering marijuana in Michigan for some time now.

Neher says a gradual change in public perception supporting marijuana is leading to legal and policy changes.

“Here in Michigan we’re now seeing polling above 50%, and it’s been gradually rising steadily for a number of years,” Neher said, “It’s gone from medical marijuana being the big issue to now, legalization. The dominoes are starting to fall.”

Though Michigan is in a similar place as Colorado was a few years ago, the difference here is the path to legalization.

Specifically, Neher says he believes there was more cohesion in the Colorado and Washington legalization movements. Here in Michigan there are some distinct differences of opinion among the groups pushing to legalize.

According to Neher, there are two big arguments in favor of legalization.

The first is that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and that enforcing it as a schedule 1 drug under federal law is leading to excessive detention, costing the state a ton of money.

The second argument is the tax revenue marijuana could bring the state. Supporters are eyeing the 25% marijuana sales and excise tax Colorado’s government enjoys.

Neher says that because none of the states that have legalized marijuana have a population as large as Michigan’s, it’s hard to estimate exactly how much a marijuana tax would bring in for the state. However, Neher says, “a lot of people are estimating hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue. At least $100 million.”

Those who oppose legalization, according to Neher, believe marijuana to be a gateway drug, leading to heavier and more dangerous drug use and violence.

There are three groups looking to get their proposals on the 2016 ballot.

“One group is mostly made up of activists, and the other two are made mostly of Oakland County Republicans who traditionally have been anti-marijuana,” Neher said, adding that there are divisions within the groups as well.

“The conversation isn’t necessarily whether or not to legalize marijuana for these groups, it’s how do we do it and what kind of system do we set up so that we don’t run into major problems, or so that we can cash in on this," he said.

MILegalize is the group Neher says is made up mostly of activists and attorneys. Neher says a lot of them are the same folks who fought to get the state's Medical Marijuana Act passed.

In addition to legalizing use for everyone over 21, they want to allow individuals to grow up to 12 plants personally. They also want more protections for dispensaries and medical marijuana patients to clear up a lot of the ambiguity that currently exists in the Medical Marijuana Act.

“It would basically leave up everything to the voters,” Neher said, "They would spell out every single aspect of how this would be regulated, how this would be taxed, how the system would work.”

The Michigan Cannabis Coalition wants to let state lawmakers decide how to tax and regulate marijuana.

Neher explains the advantage to this approach is that it leaves room to adapt as things move forward, allowing lawmakers to revisit and amend the law as necessary, as opposed to amending MILegalize’s petition-initiated law, “which requires supermajority of the Legislature to pass, which rarely ever happens.”

A third group, the Michigan Responsibility Council, wants to create a system that would take over the entire wholesale market for marijuana distribution.

“It would be similar, as I’m reading it, to Michigan’s alcohol distribution system,” Neher said.

MRC’s proposal is similar to bills in the state Legislature that would create protections for dispensaries and non-smokable forms of cannabis.

Despite working toward a similar goal, he doesn’t see a way the three groups will join forces.

Jake Neher tells us more about the state of marijuana law and what to expect approaching the 2016 election in our conversation above.

-Ryan Grimes. Stateside