Higher Ground: Last Joint Standing

Last spring Michigan was popping with a potential of three different initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana statewide. Today it looks like the last initiative standing is the MILegalize effort.

"I think that our approach represents the centrist position and is capable of being a reasonable and comfortable policy for the majority," says Jamie Lowell of MI Legalize. "It's not something that's super prohibitive and only allows a few to participate in this new emerging market. We kind of find ourselves with the most appealing, sensitive and grounded approach."

Lowell places the MI Legalize position between abrogation ­—totally free and unrestricted use of marijuana— and systems such as the failed ResponsibleOhio effort that would have granted growing rights to a specific, limited number of investors.

It's not totally clear whether the formerly active Michigan Cannabis Coalition (MCC) has given up the ghost considering no public communication has emerged regarding its campaign in several months. The organization, which was never that big on communication, has pretty much gone silent. According to financial records filed with the state, the MCC did not raise any funds in the last quarter of 2015. The group still maintains a Facebook page with posts on marijuana-related stories in the media, but it has not sponsored any activities of note nor does it seem to be collecting signatures on petitions.

An MI Legalize press release refers to the apparent lack of MCC as the signs of a "dead campaign."

The Michigan Responsibility Council (MRC) never submitted petition language to the state and was thought to be working quietly in the state legislature to secure a legislative approach to legalization but nothing has been heard on that front in several months.

Meanwhile MI Legalize seems to be chugging along at a steady pace that doesn't startle, but they're still in the game. The group's press release shows that it collected $275,000 since Oct. 27 and more than a half-million in the past year.

MI Legalize reports having collected 240,000 so far. State law requires 252,000 valid voter signatures for the petition to be placed on the November ballot. The group expects to have more than 300,000 total signatures turned in for a March 19 goal. Organizers expect to achieve their goals with a blitz at polling places for the March 8 presidential primary. MI Legalize is paying signature gatherers $2 per valid signature.

It's kind of ironic that things turned out this way. Michigan was not expected to make a run at recreational legalization in this election cycle. Most prognosticators figured 2018 to be a more realistic goal. The national players, such as the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, have their sights set on the coasts — with the Vermont and Rhode Island legislatures looking likely to legalize, and the cluster of California, Nevada, and Arizona with likely successful initiatives.

Michigan was far down the list of probable recreational legalization states as far as out-of-state strategists and money coming to our aid.

But then the moneyed interests stepped in. The MRC met with state activists in winter 2015 proposing something similar to ResponsibleOhio's investor-driven approach. Then the MCC popped up with a plan with tight restrictions and certification for growers. The grassroots activists who fought for medical marijuana and have stayed in the legal fights to implement the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act of 2008 couldn't stand on the sidelines and watch rich investors take over the fertile opportunity they had created.

"We got into it out of absolute necessity," says Lowell. "We knew there were organizations with really restrictive models out there. The legislature was thinking about some language that was going to be a limited tier system. We were heading down the same path where things are really restrictive."

So the MI Legalize folks jumped in a couple of years sooner than conventional wisdom would have counseled. The latest polls show that 56 percent of Michigan voters support recreational legalization. That's just creeping into the range where activists like to run initiatives. Most prefer to see a few more percentage points of support to carry an initiative because some will fall off when the opposition starts talking.

Now MI Legalize is the only team left after they jumped in by necessity. They're not hitting home runs, but they're putting together enough base hits to stay in the game. It was the first initiative to have its language approved by the state. The cause has managed to raise enough money — close to half came in a $250,000 contribution from an Ann Arbor businessman — to pay for signature gathering, although most of the work has been done by volunteers.

"Every step of the way, every benchmark we needed to make we made, enough people have supported this to keep it going," says Lowell.

The next benchmark will be to complete the signature gathering and have them verified. Some people believe that because the signature gathering has taken more than 180 days since filing the petition some signatures will not be valid. According to Lowell, that just means the verification process becomes more onerous, but the signatures are still valid.

I signed a petition when they first began circulating and I wondered if I should sign one again. Lowell says no; it's illegal to knowingly sign a petition more than once. There are plenty of lawyers in the MI Legalize coalition. Let them fight it out.

Marijuana legalization is coming down the pike and 2016 is looking like a big year. National polls show about 58 percent of voters support recreational legalization. There are legalization questions on the ballot in several states and it's a presidential elections year, which means high voter turnout and less chance that an inspired group of prohibitionists could block the will of the majority.

Michigan should get in on that wave. But if not this year, we're still on course for a 2018 date.

Detroit date

Things are roiling around in Detroit too — at least when it comes to provisioning centers. The rollout of the recently enacted Medical Marihuana Caregiver Centers statute calls for locations to apply for certification between the first and last days of March. Detroit corporation counsel Butch Hollowell says that 211 locations in Detroit have been notified.

The city law requires that facilities be at least 1,000 feet from city parks, schools, churches, and other caregiver centers. Applications must include a site security plan and background checks on all employees. After March 31, the Detroit police and the city's building and safety departments will enforce the ordinance. Police Chief James Craig has said that officers will respond to complaints but not arbitrarily go after facilities.

Detroiters who pushed for the ordinance were strongly concerned with the number of pot shops popping up in the city. The new rules don't put a limit on the number of facilities allowed, but I'm guessing that there will be fewer than 211 marijuana storefronts in Detroit.

However, if things go well at the polls this November, that should change considerably in coming years.

Tackling the NFL

The Super Bowl team I backed may have lost the game, but the event is still reason enough for me to give a shout-out to the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition (GCC), a group seeking to allow players and the public to use cannabis as an option for treatment of injuries. Former players such as Nate Jackson have estimated that at least half of professional football players use marijuana — some say the percentage is much higher. The GCC advocates that the NFL allow marijuana as a treatment for pain (there's plenty of that in football) and for brain injuries. Apparently the league punishes players even on teams located in states where marijuana is legal.

Brain injury in football has taken a high profile lately with the film Concussion highlighting how the common sports injury leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease related to memory loss, impaired judgment, and progressive dementia. Emerging science shows that marijuana has neuroprotective features that could help patients suffering from brain injuries.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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