Petition rules could hold up Michigan legalization effort

Higher Ground

May 25, 2016 at 1:00 am
Petition rules could hold up Michigan legalization effort

When the MILegalize petitions proposing the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan hit the streets last summer I signed the first one that came my way. That was sometime in July.

Now my signature probably won't count. That's the big issue facing the folks who organized the legalization effort right now: whether or not petition initiative signatures collected outside of a 180-day window are valid. And it doesn't look good. The most immediate answer to that question will be rendered by Gov. Rick Snyder when he decides to sign, or not sign, S.B. 776, the recent legislation that sets a hard 180-day window for collecting signatures on a petition initiative.

"I think we're headed to court," Lansing attorney Jeffrey Hank, the MILegalize chair, said on the WKAR Lansing program Off the Record last Friday. Although he also quipped: "I think the governor might be a closet fan of ours ... where is he going to get the money for roads and schools?"

Hank is referencing the fact that the MILegalize initiative language specifically says that taxes raised on marijuana sales would be dedicated to schools, roads, and local municipalities. That could be significant. In Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, the state collected $135 million in marijuana taxes in 2015. Michigan, with nearly twice the population of the Rocky Mountain State, would probably see a lot more. When I spoke with Hank earlier in the week, he said the Michigan market would be second only to California's — if both states were to legalize.

But most folks anticipate that Snyder will sign the legislation that would not only block the MILegalize petition, but also the petition to ban fracking in the state. Fracking is the controversial process of mining gas and oil that has been blamed for causing earthquakes and other environmental problems.

Hank said the oil and gas industry came out hard against the anti-fracking initiative. Off The Record host Tim Skubick suggested the MILegalize petition might be "collateral damage" in the effort to defeat the fracking ban. Collateral or not, the damage has been done to the chance to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Michigan.

I spoke with Hank before he appeared on the television show. MILegalize fully expects to move forward and turn in its petitions on June 1. They have more than 300,000 signatures that have already been verified by Practical Political Consulting, the same company the state uses to challenge petitions. MILegalize needs 252,523 good signatures; most petition initiatives gather more than necessary to protect themselves against disqualified signatures.

"We believe that the process we're going to use squares with the law," Hank told me.

But now it looks like the law will change midstream for this year's initiatives. A number of news media have declared the MILegalize effort dead, and this year's petition may well be. A court challenge could easily drag out past a deadline to get the question printed on the ballot. And it's not likely the courts will smile on the effort to challenge the law.

"It's a concern, but usually with election stuff they will expedite it," Hank told me. "It will end up at least at the Michigan Supreme Court."

Wherever it ends, MILegalize put in a great effort for a group with no funding or support from the national organizations that tend to underwrite these efforts. They got an endorsement from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, although it came late in the game. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which was a leader in getting the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act passed in 2008, has its eyes on California, the biggest state with a legitimate chance to win. California was the first state with a medical marijuana law, in 1996, and it would also complete a West Coast — Oregon, Washington State, Alaska — market of legal recreational marijuana.

"We're a homegrown group," Hank told me. "MPP has not been helpful; we don't fit into their national plan. We're the only statewide group this year to have a chance to make it that is not being backed by any national money. We actually raised $1 million in our campaign, and we've had just one major donor, not a national guy. It's pretty phenomenal that we've made it this far without their help."

But there is still a long way to go. It's obvious that the state legislature is not going to move on this, even though polls show a majority of Michigan voters favor recreational legalization of marijuana.

If the question is not on the ballot this year, Hank says it will come around again in 2018. "We're going to move this forward no matter what happens," he says.

Carded up

I let my MMMA certification go for a couple of years, mostly because it didn't make much difference for what I was doing. I've started checking out dispensaries in the area now that I'm recertified — and hoping I don't get asked to leave, as often as I have in the past when I start asking questions. What I've noted is that the recent change in law in Detroit has made everybody pretty conservative, and the only thing for sale is buds. I visited a dispensary last week that had everything at $10 a gram. Not a bad price. I've seen a lot of ads in recent years listing prices at $15 to $30 per gram. You can't find infused products on the shelves, but if you know the right people, they're not that hard to find. We should not, however, have to slide into parking lot deals with a medical marijuana program in existence in Michigan.

How different it is in Washtenaw County, where officials are more tolerant. I went into an establishment in the Ann Arbor area that had a full array of products, from buds and infused candies to tinctures and oils. Many medical users need these products to maintain their health and privacy. I've talked with an epilepsy patient who uses gummy candies at work to avoid seizures and problems with coworkers. Bravo to Washtenaw County's tolerant government bodies.

Prescription, anyone?

There are no prescriptions for medical marijuana in Michigan — just doctors' recommendations and state certifications. However, Walgreen's brought up marijuana on its Tumblr blog recently. Under the question "What is medical marijuana?" the post read: "Marijuana has been used to relieve pain, digestive, and psychological disorders for more than 3,000 years — but the efficacy, safety and legality of the drug are still widely debated."

The post went on to discuss what conditions it is used for and how to use it. Could this be a bit of clarity on the part of a responsible corporate citizen? Or are the folks at Walgreen's anticipating just how much money could be made dispensing prescriptions for marijuana? Maybe it's a bit of both.

Still seeking clarity

Congress finally approved giving Veterans Administration doctors the ability to recommend marijuana for veterans, a reversal of last year's decision. Still, as long as the plant is considered a Schedule 1 drug with no accepted medical use by the federal government, it's not clear if doctors can be prosecuted for making the recommendation.

"It's looking like this could finally be the year the federal government stops making veterans jump through costly, time-consuming hoops just to get legal access to medical marijuana," says Tom Angell, of the group Marijuana Majority. "Cannabis has shown great promise in helping veterans deal with PTSD and treat chronic pain, and it's an increasingly attractive alternative to opioids."