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The Cannabis Factor in Michigan’s Governor’s Race

On Election Day, Michigan voters could pass cannabis legalization — but they could also elect a longtime anti-cannabis crusader as the state’s next governor.

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer has been a supporter of legalization while serving in the state Senate, but Republican candidate and current Attorney General Bill Schuette’s long history as one of the state’s most vocal and powerful leaders against cannabis worries those who believe that he would use his new executive authority to stymie legalization.

Right now, the numbers look good for both Whitmer and legalization: a September survey showed that Whitmer has a comfortable lead over Schuette, with a total of 49.8% of voters saying Whitmer has their vote, and 36.1% expected to cast theirs for Schuette. And a recent poll commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV shows that 58% of voters plan to endorse the initiative.

But while cannabis proponents are optimistic about the prospects for legalization regardless of what happens in the governor’s race, Jamie Lowell, a pro-cannabis grassroots organizer with the group MI Legalize, argues that political leadership after the November election will be key to the success or failure of the state’s cannabis industry.

“It’s paramount that in order for this thing to have a chance to be implemented with a little bit of sense,” Lowell told Cannabis Wire, advocates need to “make sure Schuette is not our next governor.”

Whitmer said in an email to Cannabis Wire that she understands the issues related to cannabis and would be proactive as governor. “I will be a ‘Yes’ vote on the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana here in Michigan,” she wrote. “As governor, I’ll make sure we regulate it so it doesn’t get into the hands of our kids and tax it so we can use the money to fix our crumbling infrastructure and broken education system.… I’ll work with everyone who wants to ensure we tax and regulate marijuana responsibly.”

Schuette’s campaign did not respond to two email requests for comment, but he has said he would withhold judgment on adult-use cannabis until voters decide which way to go.

In 2008, Schuette was a Michigan Court of Appeals judge and a leader of Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Kids, the primary anti-cannabis advocacy group fighting the successful 2008 campaign to legalize cannabis for medical purposes.  

As attorney general, Schuette has been direct in his anti-cannabis positions. In one 2011 opinion, No. 7262, Schuette said that by “returning marihuana to a registered patient or caregiver, a law enforcement officer is exposing himself or herself to potential criminal and civil penalties under the [Controlled Substances Act].” Another allowed private property owners, such as landlords, to ban smoking cannabis, including as medicine. While these opinions are not law, they often play a big role in political debates and can be cited by government agencies to defend their decisions.

Lowell, of MI Legalize, told Cannabis Wire that Schuette’s opinions hampered reasonable debate and created obstacles for government officials trying to issue licenses and regulations around the medical law. Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Licensing Board has accepted hundreds of applications for licenses but few have been approved.

Today, Scott Greenlee, a former Schuette staffer, is the president of Healthy and Productive Michigan, the anti-cannabis group. Randy Richardville, a former Republican majority leader in the Senate who is working with Healthy and Productive Michigan, told Cannabis Wire that he hopes his campaign will help push Michigan residents to vote against the legalization ballot initiative. But if it passes, he called on the legislature and the new governor, no matter who it is, to seek regulations that keep the drug out of the hands of children and give adequate resources to law enforcement to crack down on cannabis use that occurs outside of the new law, two areas that the senator thinks are underfunded in the ballot initiative.

“That’s why I’m saying the sky is falling,” he said. “Because it is.”

Richardville also said that the requirement in the ballot initiative that the state set up a regulatory system within one year will handcuff state lawmakers. If state bureaucrats drag their feet, those seeking a cannabis business license could obtain one from their local government. Further, any changes to a constitutional amendment, which the law would be, require a two-thirds supermajority vote of the legislature, and Richardville said he worries that lawmakers are unlikely to coalesce around sensible regulations with such a high bar for consensus.

“I have no problem with responsible adults using recreational marijuana at their home,” Richardville said. “This is a very complex, difficult to regulate industry. To believe they’re going to be able to do that work in one year is naive.”

Josh Hovey, a spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group that drafted and is pushing the ballot initiative, the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act, said in an email to Cannabis Wire that the ballot initiative process requires Michigan politicians to respect a new law they didn’t want to pass themselves. “Requiring a supermajority to change a citizen-initiated law is an important protection afforded by Michigan’s constitution because it safeguards the will of the people,” he said. “This will help ensure that, if amendments are made, they are done with bipartisan compromise. It also ensures that changes to the law are not forced through via any one special interest group.”

The election, like many around the country, has President Donald Trump looming in the backdrop. Schuette has been endorsed by Trump and he has aligned his campaign around many of Trump’s policies. While Democrats are banking on Trump’s divisive nature to drive Democrats to the polls, Richardville believes Michigan voters will make a different calculation and support Schuette.

“If you sincerely follow Donald Trump’s policies, you can’t be argued with,” he said, citing, among other things, declining unemployment. “You can be disgusted, you can be annoyed, you can be upset with the way he talks about it … but tell me which policies you’re going to go toward?”

Hovey said his group is focused on their issue, not who becomes the next governor. Hovey told Cannabis Wire that, because legalization is an issue that now cuts across party lines, he expects the legalization measure to pass no matter who is elected governor.

“This is an issue that is supported by such a strong number of Republicans, they could very well vote in a Republican governor and still support legalization,” Hovey said.

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Cannabis Wire is a news startup that will document the end of a prohibition and the birth of an industry.
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