LANSING, MI — Two Michigan marijuana legalization committees racing to the 2016 ballot cleared an early hurdle Thursday in Lansing, although one of the groups faced a bit of pushback in the process. The Board of State Canvassers on Thursday approved the form of separate petitions from the Michigan Cannabis Coalition (MCC) and the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee (MCCLRC). That means both committees can begin circulating petitions for their initiated legislation and attempt to collect the 252,523 signatures required to make the ballot in 2016. MCCLRC, a group led by marijuana activists and attorneys, faced some criticism from canvassers for squeezing the language of their proposed initiative on the back of a single petition sheet, which canvassers said made it hard to read.
“I think this is a terrible disservice to people reading this petition,” said Julie Matuzak, a Democrat appointed to the four-member board, who nonetheless voted to approve the petition because it technically met current rules.
Jeffrey Hank, a Lansing-area attorney and chairman of the ballot committee, downplayed the critique and said the group would begin collecting signatures in the next few weeks. “We think it’s perfectly readable. Our language is publicly available and has been for some time. We’re confident the voters will understand the options we provide,” he said.
Both potential ballot proposals would legalize the possession or use of recreational marijuana by adults 21 years of age or older and allow for sales at retail shops, but they would go about it in different ways. MCC, a Pontiac-based group that has hired a former Republican legislative staffer to serve as its public face, wants to give lawmakers a role in the legalization process. Under the proposal, the Legislature would have authority to set the marijuana tax rate, but any revenues would be reserved for use on education, public safety and public health. Lawmakers could also require licensing of marijuana facilities, which would be overseen by a new Michigan Cannabis Control Board.
“I think that we have a perfectly good group of individuals that is elected and are perfectly capable of deciding what a fair tax rate is to establish on an agricultural product,” said spokesman Matt Marsden, indicating that the group plans to begin collecting signatures as soon as this weekend. By dedicating some of the potential tax revenue to public safety, MCC is hoping to minimize opposition from law enforcement groups that have traditionally fought marijuana legalization efforts.
“I don’t expect them to come out and say, ‘Hey, we’re behind this,'” said Marsden. “But I think what this does do is allow them to say, ‘You know what, we’re going to have the first revenue stream in the state budget that we’ve ever had for public safety. What’s that going to allow us to do?'”
MCCLRC, meanwhile, is proposing its own tax rate for marijuana sales — a 10 percent excise tax on top of the state sales tax — with revenue going to roads, schools and local governments.BThe activist-led group would allow residents to grow up to 12 marijuana plants at home. The proposal would let local communities prohibit marijuana facilities but give local voters the chance to overturn a local ordinance by a public vote.
“We believe we have more of a small-business friendly model and a model that will give Michigan farmers and families and businesses more freedom to operate, yet still with some fairly robust regulations,” said Hank. Those regulations include child-resistant packaging on retail marijuana and labeling that references the current laws against driving under the influence of the drug.
“We believe we’ve crafted the best law there is — better than the Legislature would create,” said Hank, noting that board members have led local decriminalization efforts around the state. Voters in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon have already chosen to legalize marijuana, and groups in a number of other states are pursuing ballot proposals. Recent polling suggests roughly 50 percent of Michigan voters support the concept of legalization and taxation of marijuana sold through state-licensed stores. A third group, the Michigan Responsibility Council, is also considering a petition drive that may propose a three-tier regulatory system like the state currently has for alcohol production, distribution and sales.
“We are continuing to do our due diligence on this,” said Paul Welday, a high-profile Republican operative from Oakland County who is involved the planning. He suggested the group could finalize plans later this summer.
“We’ve said all along, you don’t necessarily have to be the first to the gate, but you have to get it right. We’re crossing our T’s and dotting our I’s.”