Make the right choice: Support MILegalize 

Higher ground

We're heading into the final rounds of the petition drives to legalize recreational marijuana here in Michigan. The MILegalize petition drive is expected to round things up by the end of December. The competing petition circulated by the Michigan Cannabis Coalition (MCC) is expected to finish up in January.

In case you were wondering, the MILegalize petition is clearly the one you should support and the law you should vote for when the time comes.

The MILegalize campaign comes from the Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee, which is mainly made up of the activists who have been fighting to change the marijuana laws in Michigan for many years. These are the people who have stood with the many municipal initiatives to legalize marijuana in cities across the state. These are the people who have rallied to support those who have been unjustly prosecuted in spite of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA). They have fundraised, and stood on the state Capitol steps, and lobbied in the legislature. Michigan NORML, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and the Michigan Green Party have endorsed MILegalize.

These are the people who have toiled tirelessly over the years to change the understanding and perspective about marijuana. They are the grassroots activists who have worked under the worst of stigmas because of their issue. Many have been jailed for their cause.

That is the first key difference between the competing initiatives. The MCC initiative is backed by unnamed investors who aren't saying much. Matt Marsden, referred to in the media as a Republican operative, is the spokesperson for the organization. Although he doesn't speak to me; I've called the phone number on the MCC website several times. The mailbox is always full. I've left a callback number at least four times and never got a call back.

He's not speaking to the people of Michigan either. The MCC is not operating in an open, visible manner. The operation smells of investors who want to step in and take advantage of a playing field that has been conditioned by the grassroots activists. Now that public perception has swung more in favor of marijuana, it's time for the big-money interests to take over and reap the financial rewards. And for those who still fear marijuana but see that it is here to stay, these interests give them a pat on the shoulder to say that's why it should be heavily controlled by "big brotherly" interests.

"Ours is much more a personal liberty, free-market business model," says attorney Jeffrey Hank, chairperson of the MILegalize effort. "Big marijuana does not come in and take over. We have widespread support from Michigan cannabis activists."

A key difference between the two initiatives is their approach to the home grower. MILegalize proposes that home growers be allowed up to 12 plants at a time — the same number that the MMMA allows for medical marijuana patients. The MCC proposal would limit home grows to "two flowering plants," although a grower would have to purchase a license to grow those two plants.

Limiting the number of plants creates another level of law enforcement issues. Medical patients can have 12 plants but recreational users would have two plants. Then you will have police running around miscounting plants and misconstruing who is a patient or not. And the having to be licensed to have a small home grow is just over-regulation. I don't think homebrewers or winemakers have to be licensed to produce a small amount for personal use.

Let's make it simple: Unless you are a licensed commercial grow facility (or a caregiver with multiple patients) you can have 12 plants. That way law enforcement and other officials can learn to count to 12 and we don't have to worry that you can have this many or that many based on various licenses.

Limiting the number of plants in a home grow to two also forces consumers to buy the product of the licensed growers and distributors. I have a feeling that MCC's unnamed investors expect to make a return on supporting the petition initiative by cornering the market after legalization.

The MCC is nonspecific in this area. The organization's proposal calls for a five-member state Cannabis Control Board, appointed by the governor and the leaders of both houses of the legislature, which would set the number of cultivation licenses, costs, locations, and so on. Right now we have a Republican-dominated legislature and a Republican governor. The MCC spokesperson is a Republican operative. It's entirely possible that this dynamic could result in a board — each member would each be paid $30,000 per year — giving sweetheart deals for their friends who made it all possible.

"There are too many unknowns," says Hank. "The local control model works. We've seen it work in Ann Arbor. We put control in the hands of local government to issue licenses. If we have a hostile governor, having that single control could stymie the whole program."

A lesson about public sentiment toward inside cronyism and handing special deals to investors might be learned from the Ohio legalization initiative that failed miserably a few weeks ago. A group of investors who called themselves Responsible Ohio pulled together an initiative that would have given a state constituional monopoly to 10 investors to run medical and recreational marijuana operations in the state. While polls showed that Ohio public opinion supported legalizing marijuana, the initiative lost by a 64-36 percent margin at the polls.

Ian James, a Republican operative who led the Responsible Ohio effort, circulated an open letter to Ohioans last week. The letter vowed to bring a new initiative to the public in 2016, and read that: "Our next plan will include a free market for people to own and operate their own grow, manufacturing, and retail facilities. The plan will ensure that the industry is treated like other businesses in regards to taxation. We will have a new approach to home grow without permitting, and inclusion of growing hemp to provide opportunities for Ohio's farmers."

James also wrote, "We've heard from thousands of Ohioans since the election. And we're closer to knowing what needs to be done and how to get there — together."

Apparently he got the message that the public does not want an oligarchy running the regulated marijuana business in Ohio. And we don't want one in Michigan either. There is another lesson James got that might apply here. He writes about getting to the goal "together."

That's what the MCC is not displaying with their one-man-behind-the-curtain-representing-unnamed-investors way of doing things. We aren't even allowed to know who they are. Rather than their faces we have been presented with a cartoon of a doped-up looking gnome with marijuana leaf beard puffing on a pipe emitting a smoke cloud in the shape of Michigan. This shows a lack of taking the public seriously just as the Buddy the bud character did in the failed Ohio effort.

The MCC has not shown that it is taking Michiganders seriously on this subject.

The activists of MILegalize have shown time and again that they stand with the grassroots efforts to stop marijuana prohibition in the state. And that is the strength of this initiative. It has grown from the bottom up rather than jumping on board once the hardest work is done as the MCC investors have done.

It's still a year out from the vote and plenty of time for any number of other petition initiatives to make the ballot. The Michigan Responsibility Council, which clearly shows monopolistic intentions, has been working in the shadows of the state Capitol with its political operatives. The state legislature could move on the issue before the fall elections — although a petition initiative would still go to the ballot and voters could overrule a legislative move.

In the meantime there is an easy choice between the two petitions in the public eye. MILegalize is the one that creates a democratic free-market pathway to legal marijuana. Sign the MILegalize petition over the next few weeks and give ourselves a wonderful Christmas present with real possibilities in the new year.

More by Larry Gabriel

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