Higher Ground: Newcomers and profiteers 

It looks like voting on recreational marijuana is nearly a done deal in Michigan for the 2016 elections, unless the state Legislature gets in on the act and passes a legalization bill even sooner. The Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee (MCCLRIC) has announced its intention to circulate petitions to put recreational legalization on the ballot next year. Another group, the Michigan Responsibility Council (MRC), has reportedly been preparing its own petition for a different system of legalization. And state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, has plans to reintroduce legalization legislation this session.

During a recent edition of Off the Record, host Tim Skubick, co-host Susan Demas of MLive.com, and Detroit News Capitol reporter Chad Livengood all agreed a petition drive would be successful. Although Livengood suggested the MRC has ulterior motives.

"I would look for the Legislature to [do their own thing] before this thing gets on the ballot," he said. "A lot of this posturing of the Republican group, which is Suzie Mitchell and Paul Welday, these are two big power players in the Oakland County Republican establishment. They are pushing this to try to make the Legislature open up their eyes and maybe take this on before it gets on their plate and causes problems for them. … Look for the House to look at this."

That would be just fine with attorney Jeffrey Hank, chair of the MCCLRIC, a coalition of many of the activists who were active in the drive for medical marijuana and the municipal decriminalization efforts the past few years — that includes the Michigan Chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Americans for Safe Access.

"If [the Legislature] were to take our idea and run with it, that would be great and I hope we're pushing them to move ahead with this," says Hank. "Then we could go home and relax."

Hank also says the campaign will be using a name such as MI Legalize rather than forcing folks to learn the clunky "MCCLRIC."

Although the MRC has been filed as a nonprofit with the state, Mitchell and Welday haven't said much publicly about their intentions. Mitchell is a political fundraiser, and it stands to reason that they'll be well-funded. News reports have claimed their basic idea is similar to one that Ohio entrepreneurs are pursuing. ResponsibleOhio's initiative, aimed at a 2015 ballot, would divide the state into 10 wholesale growing operations with each one controlled by investors. The plan's original intention of no home grows was recently changed to allow home-growing licenses, partly because of the competition of three other initiatives in the state.

Tim Beck, who cofounded the Safer Michigan Coalition, says that he's serving in a consultant capacity to the MRC and has signed a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement with the organization.

"I believe this group has the ability to make cannabis legally available to anyone over the age of 21 who wants to use it," he says. "This has been my political goal for 14 years — to achieve legalization."

Beck isn't saying much beyond that, but his MRC relationship seems to put him at odds with many former allies who fear that a movement they worked for over many years, laying the groundwork for legalization in Michigan, is going to get co-opted by donor-investors who want to lock up the industry now for a relatively few profiteers.

Hank says Michigan would realize $200 million in tax revenues. Tax revenues are but a percentage of the total economic activity being taxed. Hank also says that taking pot off the plate for police will garner $300 million in savings for law enforcement.

The committee is still going through a process of document development and refining ideas. "We want to do a really good law, get feedback from everyone and get something we can live with and can pass," says Hank.

But there are some basic principles Hank is ready to talk about: "Not amending the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act or in any way taking away a right, privilege, or benefit of any patient or caregiver."

His group wants a tax-and-regulate system in which anyone 21 and over can buy marijuana. There would be sales and excise taxes; the $200 million figure is based on numbers in Colorado and increased proportionally for Michigan's larger population. Tax revenues would go 40 percent to roads, 40 percent to schools and 20 percent to local governments. And industrial hemp production would be legalized.

"A Michigan farmer would get a license to grow hemp," says Hank. "That's going to be regulated differently than marijuana."

It would seem that the two groups should be communicating with each other. They share the goal of legalizing marijuana, but according to Beck and Hank they haven't talked yet. Hank's people have run these kinds of initiatives numerous times but they lack the kind of funding usually needed to win. The MRC looks to be able to raise large amounts of money quickly and has access to the ears of Republican politicians who could influence the electorate. Could there be a meeting of the minds?

"We're willing to talk to them," Hank says. "They're quiet and haven't announced their intentions. Until they come out publicly and say what they're going to do or approach us, we don't know what they intend. If we can work together to end cannabis prohibition without a cartel or cronyism, we will."

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.

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