Michigan Republicans Could Vote To Legalize Recreational Marijuana Next Week

Photo Credit: Mark Bugnaski

Michigan lawmakers could vote to legalize recreational marijuana next week instead of sending it to the ballot under a plan being forwarded by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

“I’m proposing that we adopt it and amend it and put it right under the (medical) marijuana law and regulate it,” Meekhof said Thursday.

He has the votes in the Senate, he said, and is working with other lawmakers in the House to get around the opposition of House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt.

Legalizing recreational marijuana hasn’t always been a priority for Republicans. But a citizen-led ballot initiative called Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has gathered enough signatures to get the marijuana legalization law they’ve crafted onto a statewide ballot, where polling suggests the issue would be popular among Michigan voters.

But first, it goes to the state legislature. By Tuesday lawmakers are poised to either act as Meekhof has suggested or not act, which would send the issue to the statewide ballot.

So why the potential legislative pot legalization?

As proposed, the initiative would legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational use. Those over 21 could use marijuana, but would still be unable to consume it in a public place or drive under the influence.

Lawmakers have concerns about the proposal, though, and laws approved by voters are difficult for the legislature to amend. Per the constitution, it takes a three-fourths vote of the state legislature, while regular laws can be amended with a simple majority.

While Republicans have a majority in both chambers, they don’t have a three-quarters majority, and Democratic leaders aren’t willing to circumvent the voters on this issue.

That’s part of the calculus for Meekhof, who served in the legislature as it grappled with how to amend the medical marijuana law voters approved in 2008. The citizen-written law had vagueness that resulted in court cases, uneven enforcement across the state, and, eventually, legislative changes. This time he sees an opportunity for the legislature to make changes earlier.

“It’s just bad public policy for Michigan as was the 2008 ballot initiative, and it took us almost 10 years to get that under control. And I think we should do it now, so we can amend it by simple majority,” Meekhof said.

The reason he thinks it’s bad policy, he said, is a lack of regulation. But that’s not the case, said Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol spokesman Josh Hovey. In drafting the proposal, he said, backers looked to the medical marijuana regulatory scheme the legislature enacted in 2016.

“We used that 2016 framework to draft our initiative, and we followed it very, very closely,” Hovey said.

The proposal requires businesses to be licensed by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and allows local communities to regulate where and when marijuana establishments can be open.

Hovey said if the legislature does adopt the proposal, it shouldn’t be with the intent of changing it immediately.

“We’re happy for the legislature to adopt our initiative as written. But we have a strong position that it doesn’t need to be changed right away,” Hovey said.

The group formed to oppose the ballot proposal, meanwhile, Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools, is now supporting the adopt-and-amend route. Doing so could make better policy, said spokesman Mark Fisk in a press release, and avoid replicating issues observed in other states that have legalized.

“Lawmakers have a unique opportunity to right a wrong before it happens and learn from the painful experience of Colorado where drug cartels are setting up shop in neighborhoods,” Fisk said in a press release.

Democratic leaders, however, aren’t supportive of the adopt-and-amend route. He’s from Flint, a city that suffered a water crisis under an emergency manager – a situation made possible after citizens struck down the emergency manager law, but lawmakers passed a similar one anyway. He sees parallels in this situation.

“They’re assuming it’s going to pass, and they’re trying to circumvent that will of the voters,” Ananich said.

He wants to see it go to the ballot, where people can have a say on the issue.

The adopt-and-amend proposal is also opposed by Leonard, the House Speaker. Though he doesn’t support it, he pledges not to stand in the way if the rest of his caucus does.

“I personally do not support it, but I’ve been very clear that if the 55 votes are there we will put it up and we will give it a vote,” Leonard said.

That said, he’s not expecting it to pass.

“Some folks have said that there is momentum building for those that want to get it passed. I would liken that to the person that purchases five lottery tickets instead of one lottery ticket. I don’t anticipate it happening. The support is not there,” Leonard said.

The legislature, if it chooses to act, must do so by Tuesday. If both chambers pass the legislation, it remains fully in the legislative domain. If the chambers don’t both act, it goes to the ballot, where Michigan citizens can vote on in in the Nov. 6, 2018 election.