Michigan Pot Legalization Push Faces New Opposition

Photo Credit: Jose Juarez

A campaign to legalize and commercialize recreational marijuana in Michigan is facing opposition from a national group that has fought similar proposals in other states around the country.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana of Virginia is the initial sole donor to the “Healthy and Productive Michigan” committee formed to fight the potential 2018 ballot proposal. Its 501(c)4 nonprofit action fund contributed $150,000 on Dec. 26, according to a campaign finance report filed last week with the state.

The contribution is the latest sign that outside groups could spend big here if Michigan becomes the epicenter of a national battle over marijuana legalization. Vermont recently became the ninth state to legalize the drug despite warnings of possible federal enforcement by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Michigan is a priority because it’s been targeted by the pot industry,” said Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “They see it as an opportunity to make a lot of money.”

Sabet said the group will likely donate more to the legalization opposition committee and assist with fundraising efforts in Michigan.

“We’re very concerned about what more marijuana use would mean for Michigan families, kids, the workplace and businesses,” he said.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a national pro-legalization group based in Washington, D.C., helped plan the Michigan initiative and has contributed more than $174,000 in cash and in-kind services to the campaign.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol includes local legalization activists. The committee reported $651,486 in direct contributions for 2017, including $549,238 from Michigan donors.

Spokesman Josh Hovey said organizers expected opposition groups to “start popping up sooner rather than later” but noted the anti-legalization committee has not yet reported any Michigan donors.

Opposition funding from the national group “reinforces to us that the campaign is going to be a very real fight this year and that we can’t take anything for granted,” Hovey said.

“We’ll have to work hard to get the truth out there and make sure people have the facts. When the facts are out there, the only choice people will make is yes.”

Organizers submitted roughly 365,000 petition signatures to the state on Nov. 20.

If the Michigan Bureau of Elections and Board of State Canvassers determine at least 252,523 of those signatures are valid, marijuana legalization will likely appear on the statewide ballot in November. A signature challenge deadline expired Friday.

Scott Greenlee, who leads the Healthy and Productive Michigan opposition committee, said his group expects the measure to make the ballot and is focused on fighting it there.

A “strong national partner” helps, Greenlee said, noting he reached out to Smart Approaches to Marijuana and began meeting last month with potential Michigan investors. He expects support from both business and law enforcement groups.

The proposal would allow and regulate marijuana production and retail sales in Michigan, building on the state’s new system for licensing medical pot businesses. It calls for a 10 percent excise tax, with revenue dedicated to roads, schools and local governments.

Residents could generally carry up to 2.5 ounces of the drug or possess up to 10 ounces in their homes, but smoking would not be allowed on public sidewalks.

About 57 percent of Michigan voters support legalization, according to a recent poll of 600 likely voters conducted by the Glengariff Group and provided to The Detroit News and WDIV.

The Jan. 16-19 poll showed support for legalization was stronger among Democrats than Republicans and assumed a higher turnout among Democrats in 2018 than showed up in 2016.

But the strongest indicator was prior use of the drug. Among voters who admitted to using marijuana at some point in their life, 73 percent said they supported legalization, compared with 41 percent among voters who denied ever trying the drug.

“It’s those people who haven’t smoked pot who are going to decide this, not just based on the question of should this be legalized, but also is this the right way to do it,” said pollster Richard Czuba. “I think you’re going to see both sides target these folks.”

Greenlee is a GOP strategist who worked in Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office from 2013-16, but he said his group intends to appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle.

Sabet worked as a policy adviser to the Obama and Bush administrations. Smart Approaches to Marijuana was co-founded by former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, a Democrat and son of deceased Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The national group does not “want to put people in handcuffs for smoking a joint,” Sabet said.

But he contends there is a difference between an adult using marijuana at home and legal shops that can sell edible pot products.

“We’re concerned by the fact the initiative would allow for cookies, candies and soda and really start a new industry that’s very similar to the tobacco industry,” he said. “We don’t think the answer is legalization.”

A separate opposition group called the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools reported a $5,000 contribution in June but has not been active in several months.