Drugs are a major campaign point in Michigan this political season

Jan 31, 2018 at 1:00 am
Drugs are a major campaign point in Michigan this political season

This year will be the most drug-infused election season in Michigan history. Not only is the question of legalizing marijuana probably going to be on the ballot, the opioid crisis is going to be front and center as an issue. Every candidate for statewide office in Michigan is talking about the opioid crisis.

Gubernatorial candidates Gretchen Whitmer, Brian Calley, Shri Thanedar, Bill Schuette, and Abdul El-Sayed — as well as attorney general candidates Dana Nessel, Tom Leonard, Pat Miles, and Tonya Schuitmaker — have all, appropriately so, made the opioid crisis one of their big issues.

And it seems probable that at some point in the campaign, marijuana will actually be cast as a cure for opioid addiction. That is absolutely going to boggle some minds. But last fall's headline on Forbes magazine, "Dr. Oz says medical marijuana could help solve opioid addiction," is not an unusual sentiment these days.

Josh Hovey, spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA), won't go that far, but he does have some thoughts on the subject of marijuana vs. opioids.

"You'll see a lot of policy makers admit that the war on drugs has failed," says Hovey. "Given the opioid crisis, it makes sense to stop wasting resources on marijuana when you have an opioid epidemic."

Even though all the candidates agree that something has to be done about opioids, the shrillest alarm bells will come from the marijuana prohibitionists. This may well be their last stand in Michigan. The latest polling shows that 57 percent of Michigan voters support legalizing recreational marijuana. Candidates notice this sort of thing.

"All of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates have come out in favor of legalization," says Hovey. "Most Republicans have played the issue close to the vest. There is a pretty strong libertarian wing of the Republican party that supports legalization. Recent polls show nearly 60 percent support legalization. ... In the past they would say it's up to the voters to decide. Now we'll see more candidates come out and support legalization. Why wouldn't they? It's pretty clear that prohibition and the drug war are a big failure."

Candidates are going to have to talk about marijuana this year. Voters will want to know where they stand. After all, the state is rolling out a marijuana production, processing, and delivery system. The first licenses to operate will take effect as soon as they are issued, likely starting in April. Municipalities across the state are deciding whether to allow growing, processing, or selling in their communities. Everybody will be talking about it.

Even the marijuana haters will be useful in getting candidates on the record about where they stand with marijuana. Michigan NORML, as usual, has been circulating profiles of candidates for every congressional district detailing their records regarding marijuana.

It is indeed a drug-infused election. Much different than in the past.

In 2010 when Schuette ran for attorney general, he was a known anti-marijuana activist. He'd been a vocal leader of the opposition to 2008's Michigan Medical Marihuana Act and a tough-on-drugs Court of Appeals judge.

Medical marijuana activists feared Schuette and once he became attorney general he was the biggest impediment in the state to letting the law work. Schuette ran a series of seminars for law enforcement during which he encouraged police officers to arrest patients and confiscate medical marijuana.

This year, Democratic candidate Dana Nessel seems to be the exact opposite. She supports the ballot proposal to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, and says, "I plan to vote for that proposal, absolutely."

When asked if she has ever used marijuana, the former Wayne county assistant prosecutor unabashedly admits, "I have."

Her assessment of Schuette's performance on the medical marijuana issue these past eight years: "I would give him an F. That's only if you're grading A through F. If I had the whole alphabet he would have a Z."

This pretty much makes Nessel the darling of the CRMLA crowd. There have even been fundraisers hosted by activists to support her candidacy. Another Democratic candidate, former U.S. attorney Pat Miles, has said he would support the will of the people on marijuana. It was hardly a rousing endorsement, and his mention of "overdosing" on marijuana shows a bit of misinformation on the subject. None of the leading republican candidates seem to be addressing the issue.

Schuette, now a gubernatorial candidate, has said he will respect the will of the people on this. That's prudent, given the majority of the people support legalization. However, given Schuette's history, it's a reluctant "respect" and his obstructionist actions don't show the will to try to make it work.

Although currently leading Democrat candidate Gretchen Whitmer doesn't highlight her policy regarding marijuana in campaign literature, she has spoken in support of regulating and taxing it. Thanedar has called for decriminalization. Decriminalization is a sort of safe alternative for the skeptical. Rather than legalizing it, you decide to stop imprisoning folks for it.

On the Republican side, mostly they have been quiet on the subject. However, once the political season heats up they will probably have to come out on the record as voters demand answers. They'll probably mostly fall on the will-of-the-people sword.

One answer that will put the heat on candidates is when the Secretary of State office rules on the CRMLA petitions. If, as expected, enough signatures are verified as good, the question then goes to the legislature. The legislature has 40 days to enact its provisions as law, enact a different legalization law, or put the question on the ballot.

"They'll most likely put the issue right on the ballot," says Hovey.

Regardless of what the legislature does, candidates on the stump are going to face a lot of questions about marijuana legalization. They'll face questions about the opioid epidemic. On that subject, the problem has been acknowledged, but there's been precious little offered in the way of solutions. Hopefully that will change in this political season.

In the past, drug crises have been met with law and order. That's what the war on drugs is all about; that was the response to the so-called crack epidemic.

Opioids are an interesting departure from traditions. For one thing, the public face of opioid addiction is mostly white — not yellow, brown, or black. Another thing is that many addicts got started by taking legal prescription drugs made by pharmaceutical companies: In essence, their doctor got them hooked. On top of that, government has little experience in honestly trying to deal with a drug crises other than lock 'em up.

This is no endorsement of single-issue voting, and drugs aren't the only thing on the agenda for candidates and citizens. There will be picking sides. Education, environment, healthcare, public safety, jobs, and more are important, but questions of marijuana and opioids are high on that list, too.

The legislature will probably have the CRMLA question answered by the end of March. After that, this will not be a drug-free political season.