So pot's legal in Michigan — what now?

Nov 14, 2018 at 1:00 am
So pot's legal in Michigan — what now?
Jordan Buzzy

It's a big deal that voters legalized recreational marijuana in Michigan.

We can all exhale now. That's not a weed joke. Cannabis supporters and activists have been holding their breath these past fews weeks before the big vote to legalize recreational marijuana on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Healthy and Productive Michigan came on with a last-minute barrage of anti-marijuana advertising, rattling some folks. But when it came down to it, Michigan voters came through for weed.

"It was like the light at the end of the tunnel first opening," says Christeen Landino, assistant executive director of the Michigan Affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or MiNORML. "The light was becoming brighter but it burst open Tuesday night like a dream fulfilled."

More than 2 million other Michiganders shared that dream with a decisive decision. It's not "hazy" or "unclear" or "foggy" or any of those adjectives people who oppose marijuana reform want to use to label the new laws. There is no doubt about where voters stand on the issue.

"The Proposal 1 campaign boiled down into one of fact versus fear," Josh Hovey, spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol said in a statement released after the election. "The data from the nine other states to have legalized marijuana made clear that regulation and taxation are a better solution. Legalization of marijuana will end the unnecessary waste of law enforcement resources used to enforce the failed policy of prohibition while generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year for Michigan's most important needs."

We now live in the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana, the first state in the Midwest, and the second most populous state to do so after California. It may have been the culmination of a dream, but there was a lot of work over the long term that brought it home to this state. This is the result of decades of efforts — political, legal, social, and cultural — that culminated with Michigan voters choosing to say yes to cannabis and no to prohibition.

Michigan's choice also came in what has been a stellar year for marijuana in North America. A couple of weeks ago Mexico's Supreme Court declared that country's recreational marijuana prohibition unconstitutional — in effect, legalizing the plant. Last week a Mexican senator introduced a bill that would formalize that legalization. And Canada legalized recreational use Oct. 17.

So now recreational marijuana is legal along the entire Pacific Coast of the continent. One could travel from Nome, Alaska, to Tapachula in Chiapas, Mexico, and find legal adult-use recreational marijuana everywhere along the route.

Another look at the map shows Michigan pulling the great American Midwest into the mix. That caught the attention of Late Night host Stephen Colbert, who displayed a graphic of our state as a bong with the thumb area as the bowl to make a joke about "hittin' the mitten."

But that won't be happening right away. Once the vote is certified by the Michigan Board of Canvassers, it will be 10 days before the law goes into effect; this could happen in a month or so. For practical purposes the personal use components of the law will go immediately into effect for adults 21 and older. Adults may have up to 10 ounces in the household, as well as up to 12 plants growing in an area that is not visible from public areas. As far as stores where you can buy the stuff, don't expect to see any of those until at least 2020. All municipalities can choose to allow marijuana businesses or not.

None of this affects the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act at all, nor does it change anything for medical patients. The law does not permit marijuana use in public places, and driving under the influence of marijuana remains illegal.

With recreational legalization we're again creating a new system of licensing and distribution. That may not take as long as it has taken to set up the medical marijuana system for a number of reasons. For one, the new state executives are more marijuana-friendly than past administrations. The idea of expunging convictions for some past marijuana-related offenses has already been discussed on governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer's transition team.

Attorney general-elect Dana Nessel suggested that idea during her campaign. According to activist Ryan Basore, Nessel has already reached out to the cannabis community to say that she intends to honor her campaign promises. That means things like a sincere implementation of Prop. 1, addressing issues with the Medical Marijuana Licensing Board, expungement, and more.

One of the big arguments for marijuana legalization has been that it will get the police off our backs and onto doing other things, like catching rapists and responding to citizen calls. We're already seeing a response on that. Here is a statement from the Michigan State Police regarding their policies going forward:

"The MSP will consult with the Michigan Attorney General's Office to determine specific impact on existing department policies and procedures, and will then train our members to ensure the new law is applied appropriately."

In a post-election news conference, Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches, the national group behind Healthy and Productive Michigan, promised prohibition will rear its ugly head again: "We're not done with Michigan. We're going to make sure it's a long road to pot shops."

We'll see how that sentiment plays out. Whitmer and Nessel will have plenty of concerns that this is done right, and they will not be looking for ways to muck it up (like outgoing Attorney General Bill Schuette has for the past decade). There may be other legislators who want to do that, but the new law specifies that the state begin handing out licenses within a year.

Another reason getting a recreational system off the ground may be quicker than the medical system is that the medical system is actually — finally — getting started now. Folks over at the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs may have had an eye on the possibility of building a recreational system as they build the medical system.

"Proposal 1 identified LARA as the department that is responsible for implementing the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act," LARA director Shelley Edgerton says. "Our licensing and regulatory infrastructure for medical marijuana can be scaled up to incorporate the oversight of adult-use marijuana. We intend to offer more details regarding the commercial production and distribution of marijuana for adult-use after the Michigan Board of Canvassers certifies the election."

That's another good sign.

The night of the election there were watch parties around the state. I chose to go to a Tuesday night card game with some old stoner friends. At about 8 p.m. I rolled myself a victory joint from the stuff I grew this summer. It sat there all evening as returns showed Prop. 1 ahead, but it seemed newscasters were reluctant to call a win. I didn't get to smoke that joint until just after midnight when I was back home. It seemed well worth the wait.

Let's hear it for the women of Michigan's marijuana movement

There have been plenty of heroes in this war against marijuana prohibition — starting with the more than 2 million voters who cast their ballots in favor of Prop. 1 on Election Day. In addition, there were plenty of other people who have put their lives on the line and gone to jail, along with an army of attorneys and activists. One could fill up this column with the names of those heroes and still leave plenty out. I'm not even going to try right now.

However, in the spirit of the year of women in politics, and in the spirit of marijuana-friendly women winning in state politics this year, it's appropriate to mention a few more of them who have been stalwarts on the legalization trail. Women have been key at every step of the way, joining panel discussions, lobbying in Lansing, proofreading the proposed laws, gathering signatures, joining demonstrations, and getting out the vote.

One of the longest on the scene has been Christeen Landino. She's been the assistant executive director of Michigan NORML since 2003, but she goes way further back than that. Landino recalls getting busted for pot in 1968 and attending her first demonstration about marijuana in Detroit in 1974. That one was in support of a decriminalization effort that never made it to the ballot.

"Ladies are a godsend to the marijuana movement," says Landino. "With the men it's a lot of ego, a pissing contest in front of the crowd. Women are more cogs in the wheel that kept the wheel turning and turning and keeping things going forward."

Landino became more vocal in the movement in the early 2000s, when she landed on the board at MiNORML. She remembers being close to other ladies at NORML such as Carol Reed, Melody Carr, and Trina Moss. In the next step of marijuana business developments, Landino is hoping to see the continued involvement of women.

"We've got to get in on the ground floor of this industry and help shape it," she says. "We coddled it to get it born, taking the public from a mindset of reefer madness to where this is a reasonably accepted medicine."

Another woman who has been active in the movement is Robin Schneider, who has worked as a lobbyist and in other roles for marijuana causes in Lansing. She was involved in advocating for medical marijuana laws and in the 2016 legalization effort that didn't make the ballot. When she was a child, Schneider spent some Christmas Days visiting her father, who was sentenced on a cannabis charge, in jail. Schneider worked behind the scenes for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol team that managed the legalization campaign.

Charmie Gholson has supported the efforts for legalization, with a focus on those who have been the victims of the war on drugs. Gholson is a journalist who has worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a national organization of former police officers, and founded and edited the Midwest Cultivator. She was founder of Michigan Moms United, an organization working to stop asset forfeiture by police. She's also worked on investigating civil rights complaints against police in cannabis cases.

When it comes to standing up for medical marijuana patients and maintaining a focus on where they stand as we move toward medical marijuana, Brandy Zink has had unflagging enthusiasm. Zink uses marijuana to control seizures from her epilepsy. She's a founding member of the Michigan Chapter of Americans for Safe Access, one of the nation's largest medical marijuana patient advocacy groups, and has regularly traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress about marijuana.

Over the past few years Anquanette Jamison Sarfoh has been an ambassador for cannabis and a link to the world of mainstream media. Sarfoh is a former Fox 2 news anchor who retired from the Detroit station with the announcement that she used medical marijuana to treat symptoms of MS and that she was becoming a cannabis activist. Sarfoh has spoken at the Ann Arbor Hash Bash and participated on panels debating marijuana in the Detroit area.

The marijuana world has the same issues that beset the rest of the business world when it comes to women having a seat at the table. Women have fought hard and faced dangers as they protected their families from the ravages of the war on drugs.

"Women are more active in the workplace," Landino says. "A lot of women are poised to take over."

Provisioning centers still open

It's not real clear what happened in Judge Stephen Borrello's courtroom last Friday. The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs had a show cause hearing in the Court of Claims to justify the Oct. 31 shutdown of unlicensed provisioning centers the office is pursuing. After some three hours of meeting on Nov. 9, Borrello extended his temporary stay against shutting down provisioning centers, and against setting any dates to do that. Borrello said he needed more time to think about the decision and indicated no timetable as to when he would make a decision.

We are well past Oct. 31, so any decision made will be for a future date when all open storefronts must be in compliance with state licensing. It seems the soonest a deadline could be is Dec. 15. Even at that date, there will not be enough marijuana in the system to meet the demand. The majority of the stores operating in Michigan have been operating without licenses for several years, so letting them operate like that for another six months isn't going to be a problem. When when we have enough product going through the system, then they should shut down the places that haven't qualified for licenses.

Rust Belt goes green

Michigan is first in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana, but it looks like there might be a rapid tumbling of prohibition in the old Rust Belt. Several Ohio cities approved decriminalization measures in the recent election as warm-ups for a Nov. 5, 2019 vote on a recreational use initiative. New Illinois governor-elect J.B. Pritzger, who made legalization a centerpiece issue of his campaign, said that he wants to legalize recreational marijuana immediately after he is sworn in early next year. Minnesota governor-elect Tim Walz tweeted in August, "I support legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use by developing a system of taxation, guaranteeing that it is Minnesota grown, and expunging the records of Minnesotans convicted of marijuana crimes."

Finally, some counties in Wisconsin passed nonbinding referendum votes calling for reform of marijuana laws. Indiana lawmakers are considering medical marijuana. It looks like a potential Midwest Great Lakes cannabis industry in the offing.

Who is a marijuana user?

A friend of the family who is in her mid-70s called me after the election. She is not a marijuana proponent. However, she spends a couple of months each winter with her daughter in California. Last year while there she was given a cream to rub on her painful knees that was very effective. She left it there last year because she feared running afoul of the law here. After Prop. 1 passed, she called to ask if she could bring her knee cream back from California this year.

I ask you, is this woman a marijuana user or not?

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