Lawmaker Inaction Shapes Cannabis in Michigan as Legalization Heads to the Ballot Box

In early June, the Michigan Republican Party could have taken control of the state’s cannabis legalization conversation and shaped the industry for years to come. Instead, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed the decision on to voters, who in November will decide on a ballot initiative.

The effort was spearheaded by national cannabis legalization proponents Marijuana Policy Project who helped to form the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. If the November recreational use ballot initiative passes, and recent surveys show majority support, Michigan will become the tenth state in the country (plus D.C.) at the forefront of this industry and social movement. The state has twice the population of Colorado, a state that hit $1.5 billion in total cannabis sales in 2017, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue; however, the size of Michigan’s potential market depends largely on how and whether local governments embrace the cannabis industry.

Cannabis proponents know that the state’s nearly decade-long, awkward slow dance around how to build a productive regulatory system for medical marijuana, passed by ballot initiative in 2008, will only become more difficult with the changes that recreational use would bring. Though, it confounded some state leaders that Republicans let the opportunity to shape the cannabis issue bypass them. Republican Senate Majority Leader Leader Arlan Meekhof said in a June 5 statement that he was “disappointed” the legislature failed to even muster a vote on the issue. “Adoption of this petition was a choice to fulfill our obligations as leaders in our communities and control the impact of recreational marijuana on our state,” he said.

While the state could have become a model for how conservatives might handle an issue forced on them by popular will, cannabis legalization advocates celebrated Republicans passing the buck to voters because cannabis proponents and business operators have been increasingly frustrated over how medical cannabis has been rolled out under their leadership.

State lawmakers finally passed laws to regulate and tax medical cannabis sales in 2016. But the regulatory structure state lawmakers set up hasn’t been smooth: Michigan regulators continue to delay issuing licenses, while cannabis shops and other businesses continue to operate under the uncertainty of emergency rules. Recently, though, as the state moved forward with awarding its first full medical cannabis operator licenses, officials were finally bringing the state’s sprawling medical cannabis market into the light of legitimate business.

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Jake Davison, a former Michigan GOP political strategist, told Cannabis Wire that state Republicans have been bumbling on the issue of cannabis since it was introduced by ballot initiative. And despite what he sees as obviously poor policy making, he says the pure politics makes sense to him.

“Voting ‘yes’ has its complications, voting ‘no’ has its complications,” Davison, who now runs the publication Inside Michigan Politics, said of the recent non-vote in the legislature on cannabis. “Not voting is gold. That’s how politics works. The reasons why politicians tell people what they want to hear is because the ones who tell them what they don’t want to hear —  they get kicked out.”

Josh Hovey, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, told Cannabis Wire in an email that he expects a similar dynamic to play out if the ballot initiative passes. “Once legalization passes, the next challenge will be ensuring communities create their own zoning and licensing laws to allow businesses to operate,” Hovey said, noting that the initiative allows municipalities to regulate or ban cannabis business. “Some are embracing the new [medical cannabis] industry, others are being much more cautious, and it’s safe to assume we’ll see a similar pattern happen once full legalization passes.”

Before state Republicans passed the buck to voters, Democrats feared the GOP would find a way to adopt recreational cannabis and then attach cumbersome amendments, effectively gutting it.

GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard explained after the General Assembly missed its June 5 deadline why the House didn’t vote on the issue.

“There’s simply not support to pass this … the voters are going to have to decide,” Leonard said, according to a recording of his remarks posted by House Republicans. “We have spoken to insurance companies who have been pretty clear that auto insurance rates, as well as home rates, are going to go up in the event that this passes. When I look at the fact that we’re likely going to have more operating under the influence arrests, situations where people are probably being killed by those who are operating under the influence of marijuana, this is not a good thing for our state.”

Davison, the former GOP political consultant, explained that the Republican majorities in the Senate and House give little incentive for Republicans to stick their necks out to act on legalization. Some older lawmakers remain cemented in the Just Say No era, he said, uncomfortable with a thoughtful discussion on legal cannabis. “This is about ‘are you going to vote for those hippies or are you normal?’” Davison said, adding that Michigan Republicans are “waiting for every single human older than them to die because [cannabis] is so awkward at the dinner table.”

For its part, Detroit, a deep blue Democratic dot on the state map, shows that it is not only Republicans that have made providing clear rules and regulations difficult for the state’s fledgling cannabis industry.

In 2015, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited medical marijuana shops from being located within 1,000 feet of religious institutions and drug free zones, which include schools and libraries, rules that eliminated nearly the entire city from consideration and led to the closure of dozens of shops’ that had been operating in limbo. A 2017 local ballot initiative led by Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform successfully loosened those restrictions. City and state regulators, cannabis businesses, and interest groups continue to sort through the fallout, a tit-for-tat of legal battles and negotiations, with no clear resolution in sight.

Those who see an opportunity in an impoverished city are frustrated, said Ron Jones, a Detroit cannabis advocate, to Cannabis Wire.

“This is harming small business and the citizens of Detroit,” he said. “This is harming blacks and people of color to be able to enter into the industry because they’re making it so difficult to enter.”

Jones, who leads the Detroit advocacy group Sons of Hemp, said he believes city leaders are deploying cumbersome regulations for small business owners while waiting for the opportunity to strike a deal with big marijuana corporations.

“The small guys, we’ve been caregivers for over eight years here, we’ve been here, we’ve been fighting, we’ve been effective and we have been taking the risk,” said Jones, who wants to operate a cannabis business and is pushing for less stringent regulations. “I think [city leaders] use the churches and they use the organizations that oppose and those groups as a cover to fight the industry, but it’s here. They can’t stop the momentum. Legalization will be here in November.”

Even if voters pass the legalization initiative, state lawmakers could still shape the cannabis industry, but it’ll be a lot harder. Making changes to a law passed by a ballot initiative requires a three-fourths majority in both legislative chambers. This is an exceptionally high bar for any group of lawmakers, including one that couldn’t muster a majority on the issue in June. The issue could become even more difficult since Democrats are hopeful that they can make up ground on the GOP’s double digit majorities in both the House and Senate this year.

Mike Shirkey, who has said he wants to be the next Senate majority leader if the GOP maintains control of the chamber in November, is cautious on cannabis. He did not reply to a request for comment. But, just before the legalization question was passed on to voters, he spoke with Radio Free Hillsdale about the mess he anticipated could result from lawmakers’ decision not to get in front of the recreational cannabis issue.  

“I don’t know that I want to wake up November 8, wishing we had taken action,” he said.  

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