Higher Ground: Fighting for a vote on legalized marijuana 

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MILegalize is still kicking. The effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan turned in more than 350,000 signatures in its attempt to put the question on the fall ballot. It was the only group out of a number of petition efforts to actually turn in their petitions with the qualifying 252,523 signatures.

To the organizers, activists, petition circulators, and petition signers, I say: "Well done." But the main question being asked now is: Was it done quickly enough?

MILegalize spent a year collecting signatures, and overcame numerous obstacles, from challenges to the petition print size, to a lack of money and no support from national organizations. That's something the Michigan Cannabis Coalition's competing ballot initiative couldn't do. Neither could the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan and a handful of others.

Despite gathering enough signatures, there is an issue with signatures that are older than 180 days from the turn-in date. There's an unsubstantiated idea that petition signatures have to be gathered within 180 days of the date the petition was filed with the state — although according to MILegalize chair Jeffrey Hank, some initiatives have historically taken years to collect enough signatures.

"We believe that the process we're using squares with the law," Hank says. "As long as we have enough signatures, the ball's in the hands of the Board of Elections."

While it's unclear as to what the letter of the law is and how it's been applied, it looks like Hank's argument holds water. The proof is in the fact that the state legislature saw fit to pass a new law, SB 776, last month titled: "Limit time period for collecting ballot initiative signatures."

If the legislature saw the need to explicitly define the 180-day period in a new law, it means the time period was not nailed down already. In addition, the law would take effect immediately if signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, and there is no indication that he won't, thereby making the MiLegalize and anti-fracking petitions null and void.

The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan, admittedly short of its signature goal at the June 1 deadline, has already filed suit, saying the 180-day time period is unconstitutional.

"Whether or not the governor signs SB 776, the legal issue of our case is that the constitution specifies no circulation period and the 180-day restriction curtails our right, with or without a rebuttable presumption," Ellis Boal, the anti-fracking group's legal counsel, said in a press release.

It's possible that MILegalize will support the lawsuit.

"We're talking about it, but there is no final decision," says Jamie Lowell, a MILegalize board member. "We've turned in what we believe is enough signatures to be on the ballot for 2016."

MILegalize members are not willing to just take no for an answer. That wouldn't be in character for the group. Many of its members are the same people who have fought to change the state's marijuana laws this past decade.

Even if they are successful, MILegalize members have a tough fight going toward the November elections. Much of it's an education campaign about cannabis, and about how potential tax money could help Michigan, which is facing a budget shortfall.

"If it goes to a vote, then we've got a fighting chance," Hank says. "Every political figure in Michigan will have to take a stand."

Polls show that 56 percent of Michigan voters support legalizing recreational marijuana. That percentage will dip once a well-funded anti-marijuana campaign kicks in. Every law enforcement group in the state is against legalization, and they've been preparing for the fight.

"The Michigan Association of Police Chiefs is taking the other side," Hank says. "They have a PowerPoint presentation right out of Reefer Madness."

Opposition to legalization is focusing on access to young people, edible products with high THC infusions, and stoned driving. There are plenty of ways to counter these arguments if people will listen. For instance, recently published data in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that fewer adolescents are using cannabis, and those who do are less likely to engage in problematic use.

Child-resistant packaging is being used more and more often. However, it's difficult to get people to listen when they're worrying about what's going to happen to their kids.

"We try to get ahead of that argument, countering those negatives and accentuating the positives," Hank says.

It's not the kind of issue that will definitively be put to bed soon. There are powerful feelings on each side of the marijuana issue, and success in any direction will be met with pushback. Prohibition forces have been sharpening their attacks, and they are well-funded. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has fought medical marijuana in Florida to the tune of $5 million.

We haven't seen anything like that in Michigan, but even if the not-so-deep pockets open up to "save the children," there could be a lot of anti-pot money circulating.

This year was seen as a potentially landmark one for marijuana legalization. And it still could be, although there have already been disappointments in Vermont, where an anticipated legislative legalization didn't materialize, and in Ohio, where a medical marijuana petition effort recently ended in the face of a restrictive medical marijuana legislation that the governor has yet to sign.

As many as 20 medical or recreational votes could take place in November across the country. If every one of those votes failed, except California, it would still be considered a big year for marijuana legalization. In 1996, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but a recreational legalization attempt in 2010 was lost amid squabbling between factions of marijuana supporters. Right now, the balance seems to be in favor of legalization, but it's still too close to call.

If a few more states legalize medical marijuana, it would tip the balance so a majority of states have substantial medical access. A win in Michigan would be big because a not-insignificant state in the Midwest, with no outstate help, would be a leader in the cause. There are so many scenarios that could play out.

I'm looking for a huge year, thanks in no small way to the folks at MILegalize.

Bravo, Laith Al-Saadi

Congratulations to Ann Arbor guitarist and singer Laith Al-Saadi for making it as one of the four finalists on the NBC television show The Voice. The show is a singing competition, but Al-Saadi led with his guitar to make the finals by growling some great blues and classic rock while channeling the likes of Joe Cocker, B.B. King, and Ray Charles. Al-Saadi got plenty of praise and kudos along the way, but it never came up that he is a regular performer at the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, ripping out "The Star Spangled Banner" in Jimi Hendrix fashion for the annual rally. A quick online search reveals plenty of documentation of Al-Saadi at the bash. Al-Saadi chose to lean toward Hendrix on The Voice, playing "All Along the Watchtower" in an Instant Save performance along the way. It's not often someone from the local scene makes it to the big stage, let alone someone who is so openly cannabis-friendly.

More by Larry Gabriel

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