Michigan Legislators Can’t Decide On Marijuana Proposal

Photo Credit: Kathleen Gray

From being adamantly opposed to cannabis to  becoming an advisor to one of the country’s leading marijuana companies, former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner weighed in on legal weed Thursday during the Mackinac Policy Conference.

“I’ve found myself in the last 10 years looking at issues differently than I used to, especially in the last 4-5 years, since the number of people that I know using cannabis in some form to relieve some medical issues has grown,” he said. “So, I got into looking into medical benefits of cannabis and it’s really pretty incredible.”

“And for those who want to use it recreationally, while I’ve never used the product nor intend to, I don’t care if somebody wants to smoke a joint. Fine, let them go do it,” added Boehner, who has joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a New York-based company that has marijuana growing, processing and retail facilities in 11 states.

Much of the country has joined Boehner’s transformation, including 29 states that have legalized medical marijuana with nine of those states also approving pot for adult recreational use.

And Michigan may be the next to fully legalize marijuana if voters approve a ballot proposal on the issue during the Nov. 6 general election.

The likelihood that the issue will end up on the ballot became much higher this week as the Legislature is waffling on whether to take up the issue or send it to the ballot.

While Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he has enough votes in his Republican caucus to amend and pass the proposal, Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt Township, said the votes aren’t there yet in the House.

“Folks have talked about the building momentum for this and I would compare that to a person who has bought five lottery tickets versus one lottery ticket,” Leonard said. “There is simply not the support there now. So, I do not anticipate this happening. This is something the voters are going to have to decide.”

Nearly all the Democrats in the Legislature stand in opposition to the Legislature taking up the measure because they fear Republicans will change it so drastically that it would no longer resemble anything near the intent of the original proposal.

Their resistance was only strengthened last week when Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who is in line to become Senate majority leader next year if he wins reelection and Republicans maintain a majority in the chamber, said his preference would be to amend the proposal so that marijuana wouldn’t become legal until the federal government changes its stance and transitions marijuana from an illegal to a legal drug.

“What I would do is make it mirror what we’ve done for medical marijuana in a very rigorous regulatory setting,” he said during the WKAR-TV public television show “Off The Record.” “I would go further and put enactment delays in it so it won’t be enacted until the federal government decriminalizes it.”

Meekhof has said that language would not be included in any amended proposal, but Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, isn’t so sure.

“Sen Shirkey says his scheme is to adopt and repeal it and it looks like his plot is coming to fruition,” he said.

And House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said voters, not lawmakers, are the ones who should decide the marijuana legalization issue.

“It was very clear that the Republican goal is to gut the initiative,” he said. “I’d rather have this go to a vote of the people and have them make the final decision rather than have Republicans play games with what is a legitimate petition.”

The Legislature has until Tuesday afternoon to act on the ballot proposal and it has three options: come up with a competing proposal and both would go to the ballot; pass it and then amend it; or do nothing and it heads to the ballot.

Meekhof said he still has hopes that the Senate and House can come up with a plan to amend and adopt, even though he hates the thought of Republicans being tagged as the party that legalized marijuana in Michigan.

If the House can’t come up with the votes, “it would be a colossal failure of leadership,” he said.

Also part of the calculation for Republicans is the impact a ballot proposal on marijuana would have on voter turnout. The issue is expected to increase voter turnout, which traditionally has helped Democrats, and if a predicted “blue wave” year happens, the GOP could lose its majority status at least in the state House and some of the statewide offices.

Senate Republicans want to take up the ballot proposal so they can amend and pass the proposal with only a simple majority, Meekhof said. If they try to amend the proposal after it passes in a statewide vote, it would take a three-fourths super majority.

“It’s very important for our communities to know that alcohol is regulated, tobacco is regulated and if this goes to the ballot and passes, it’s basically unregulated marijuana in the market and I think that’s dangerous for our communities,” Meekhof said. “This is really bad public policy. It puts local control at risk and that’s unfortunate.”

The ballot proposal has the state Department of Licensing and Regulation govern and license the recreational marijuana market, while the medical marijuana industry is controlled by a licensing board appointed by the governor and the leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate. And under the ballot proposal, communities would have to vote to opt-out of allowing recreational marijuana businesses in their community, while under the medical marijuana law, communities have to vote to opt-in to let those businesses in their towns.

The ongoing debate came on a day when the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board met to consider 19 applications for businesses that want to get into a market that is estimated to produce $700 million a year in sales. Of the 19, 12 were approved and seven were denied because of a variety of non-disclosure issues. The 24 approvals given so far this year, however, have only been preliminary pre-qualifications for marijuana businesses. No licenses have been awarded yet by the state.