Higher Ground: The road to legality 

It looks like longtime state activists will mount an effort to put the question of legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults on the 2016 ballot. They're being pushed by the appearance of a new organization, the Michigan Responsibility Council (MRC), with ties to the state Republican Party, that has its own plans to tax and regulate the plant.

Either group will have to fight to get it on the ballot and probably faces a tougher fight to garner enough votes to pass it. The idea of a split electorate having to choose between plans does not bode well for either side.

Leaders of various marijuana and medical marijuana activist groups have been debating a 2016 legalization initiative the past couple of years. An EPIC-MRA poll commissioned by the Michigan Chapter National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (MINORML) late in 2014 found that 50 percent of voters support legalization, with 46 percent opposed. That's not the kind of overwhelming support that backs successful petition initiatives and pulls in support from national donors. Organizations such as the Marijuana Policy Project, which helped write the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act and worked on strategy to pass the law in 2008, looks for 58 to 60 percent support in the polls before really getting behind an effort.

However, a January Survey USA poll showed that Michiganders would prefer to tax marijuana rather than raise the state sales tax to 7 percent in order to pay for road repairs. They'd rather charge marijuana users.

That'll be part of the strategy from the newly formed Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee (MCCLRC), says attorney Jeffrey Hank, who led the decriminalization initiative in East Lansing that will be voted on this year. He attended a meeting of stakeholders over the weekend to hammer out details of the proposal.

"Now is the time, the perfect storm," he told me before the weekend meeting. "That poll related to the road tax, when you add in the tax equation, support is at 64 percent. We saw the governor take a couple hundred million dollars out of the school fund. ... We can't afford to leave this [tax] money on the table."

The MRC is a nonprofit group supporting the cannabis industry. Suzie Mitchell, of West Bloomfield, helped create the organization. She told Mlive it will probably transition into a ballot committee later this year. Mitchell is a Republican fundraiser and one of her partners is Oakland County-based Republican consultant Paul Welday. They haven't publicly announced or endorsed any specific plan.

Hank and others believe the MRC supports a model that would centralize the marijuana industry in the hands of a few growers and retail chains similar to what has been proposed by ResponsibleOhio, an initiative backed and bankrolled by investors hoping to run the industry there.

"We want a decentralized model," says Hank. "If you took this other approach with the 10 centralized facilities, you'd be enriching a very small group of people. We'd like to create a craft beer model rather than a Budweiser model and allow for adults who want to grow a limited number of plants themselves. We have three pillars: Preserve, protect, and improve the MMMA; create a system for taxation and regulation; and permit the farming of hemp."

Craft beer seems to have been a successful experiment for the state. Even without that model, home beer and wine makers have long been producing their own stuff. Federal law allows a single adult household to produce up to 100 gallons of wine or beer each year. Since marijuana regulation has taken on the alcohol regulation model, allowing home grows shouldn't be a big stretch of the imagination.

The state legislature could pre-empt it all with a bill to legalize marijuana this year with the pressure of possibly facing an initiative next year. Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) has indicated he plans to reintroduce a decriminalization bill. Irwin introduced a similar bill in 2013 that never got voted on. And two bills that were widely expected to pass during the 2014 lame-duck session that would have allowed nonsmoking forms of marijuana and local choice on whether to allow dispensaries also never came up for a vote. Some version of all of each those proposals are being talked about, but nothing definite is on the table right now.

"The legislature is not getting the job done," says Hank. "They're not ready to do this, but the average citizen is. We can't wait for the legislature. Jeff Irwin will introduce a legalization bill in the legislature; that's kind of an open secret. If the legislature would take care of it, that would be great, but we're kind of [of] the opinion that we're not going to wait for anybody anymore."

Any plan to make hay opposing the sales tax hike has to get rolling right away. The sales tax question is on the May ballot, and polls show that voters are pretty much evenly divided on the idea. If the MCCLRC wants to mount a campaign to inform voters of an alternative plan to the sales tax hike, that has to reach them quickly.

Also, for the long run, the MCCLRC has cash concerns and will be counting on fundraising events to bring in the necessary money. The MRC, run by a professional fundraiser and backed by investment interests, could be well ahead on that count. Whichever way this goes, even if it's legislative, the issue has heated up quickly in the past few weeks and doesn't look like it will cool down anytime soon.

The appearance of the MRC has added another iron to the fire. Everybody concerned is feeling a little more motivation to get something done, and that might be just what the issue needs.

More by Larry Gabriel

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