Michigan anti-pot-legalization group drops opposition in surprising about-face

click to enlarge Michigan anti-pot-legalization group drops opposition in surprising about-face
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A committee created to derail Michigan's marijuana legalization initiative has dropped its opposition to the effort in a surprising about-face intended to undermine the ballot proposal by the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA).

The opposition group, the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools, is urging the state legislature to adopt and change the recreational marijuana initiative before it can go before voters this November, where it is expected to lead to an uptick in voter turnout. The proposal was green-lighted for the ballot by the Board of State Canvassers last month, but state lawmakers have until early June to approve the proposal on their own, after which they would only need a simple majority to make amendments.

“According to public opinion polling, recreational marijuana will soon be a reality in Michigan and we urge the legislature to ensure it is regulated in as safe a manner as medical marijuana to promote public health and safety and accountability for this new industry,” Mark Fisk, a spokesman for the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools, says in a media release. The latest polling suggests more than 60 percent of Michiganders favor legalizing recreational marijuana for people 21 and up.

Fisk contends his group’s effort is about ensuring that Michigan’s recreational marijuana industry is regulated in the same way as its medical marijuana industry. The Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools has taken issue with the CRMLA's plan to depoliticize the licensing process by putting the issuing of lucrative marijuana licenses under the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, rather than a board that includes appointees by the governor and legislative leaders, as the Medical Marijuana Licensing and Facilities Act allows. The group also objects to the tax structure outlined by the CRMLA, which would put a 10 percent excise tax on products rather than the 3 percent excise tax for medical marijuana. Additionally, the group says it wants a lab testing requirement for marijuana cultivated by registered home-growers or caregivers — an additional hurdle that would make it even more difficult for small-time growers to make money. The business of home-growing is already in jeopardy due to the 500-plus plant grows legalized by the MMFLA, as well as a rule that only those large facilities can sell to dispensaries.

While the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol does not agree with the changes proposed to the ballot initiative, it says it does support the idea of the legislature acting before the proposal can get to voters.

“There's not reason to wait on passing good public policy,” says CRMLA spokesman Josh Hovey. “Ultimately, we think sparing an additional 8,000 people from arrest, redirecting law enforcement resources to more important issues and getting the licensing process underway sooner rather than later is a good thing for the state of Michigan.”

Hovey says the group is confident that state lawmakers will not make significant changes to the language of the ballot initiative, saying that amendments would “make both regulation and compliance more confusing for everyone.” The draft proposal was crafted over the course of months with help from the Marijuana Policy Project, the national organization behind a number of successful legalization initiatives across the country. The proposal keeps in place the medical marijuana industry's five-tiered regulatory framework that creates licenses for growers, processors, transporters, provisioning centers, and safety compliance facilities. That system was approved with bipartisan support from state lawmakers nearly two years ago.

According to Hovey, the end game of the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools is to “monopolize” the recreational industry or ensure that only a few wealthy people profit from it. In its approximately one year as a ballot committee, the group has received money from only the Michigan Responsibility Council, which has been identified by the Detroit Free Press as “a group of business owners who want to get into the medical marijuana business.” The Michigan Responsibility Council donated $5,000 to the Committee to Keep Marijuana Out of Neighborhoods and Schools last year.

Though the CRMLA wants to see the legalization proposal adopted immediately, some marijuana activists fear such a scenario. Lansing based-lawyer Jeffrey Hank, the founder of the MILegalize group that mounted an unsuccessful legalization initiative for the November 2016 ballot, has said he would prefer the initiative to be approved by voters because lawmakers would then need a three-fourths majority to amend it.

Late last month, Hank said it didn't appear that lawmakers had "much of an appetite" for adopting the proposal on their own ahead of November. That seemed to have changed a week later, when the Free Press reported some Senate Republicans were trying to garner support for passing the recreational marijuana proposal by tying it to a cut in the state income tax.

Separately, the CRMLA effort continues to face an attack from Healthy and Productive Michigan. That group has raised at least $150,000 from Smart Approaches to Marijuana of Virginia, a national organization known for fighting similar proposals in other states around the country.

In an email Friday, Healthy and Productive Michigan spokesman Scott Greenlee said the group “absolutely” does not plan to drop its opposition to the legalization initiative.

"We remain opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana in any form and are against the legislature passing it, or of course the general public passing it in November," he said. "We will continue working against it on all fronts."

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