Michigan’s Marijuana Debate Deepens With Legalization On Ballot

Photo Credit: Patrick T. Fallon

A decade after medical marijuana was first approved in Michigan, voters will head to the polls there in November and decide whether to make their state the 10th in the country to legalize recreational pot use.

But as election day draws closer, officials and residents in some parts of southeast Michigan have reservations about the potential cannabis wave.

The legalization initiative heading to the ballot Nov. 6 would allow individuals age 21 and over to possess, use,  or transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, and grow up to 12 marijuana plants in their homes for personal use.

Recent polling indicates about 60 percent of Michigan voters support legalizing recreational marijuana, and state and local politicians interviewed by The Blade, across partisan lines, said they expect voters to approve the measure in November. But some officials are hesitant.

Bedford Township Supervisor Paul Pirrone felt the state’s 2008 medical law was misguided in allowing caregivers to grow and sell plants out of their homes, and said he is against this year’s proposal.

“There’s way too many unknowns,” Mr. Pirrone said. “There’s unknowns about jobs, there’s unknowns about smells, there’s unknowns about law enforcement. We get calls all the time about homes that smell, or about people doing it in a business area.”

LaSalle Township Supervisor Aaron Goldsmith and Erie Township Supervisor Bill Frey both said they were undecided on the issue. In both areas, a majority of residents — about 60 percent in LaSalle — opposed allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to open in polling conducted by each township board after the 2008 law was passed.

Mr. Goldsmith said he expected residents to have a similar sentiment toward recreational marijuana.

“It is still federally illegal,” he said, “and [residents] don’t want that in their neighborhoods.”

Terry Collins, the former Police Chief in Adrian, Mich. and vice chair of Lenawee County’s board of commissioners, also opposes the measure.

“I’ve seen what it does to younger people, and particularly people who are driving,” he said. “It’s going to lead to further accidents and further arrests. That’s going to create more problems for the whole community.”

The proposed recreational law allows municipalities to determine how many dispensaries, if any, they want to allow, where they can be located, and what hours they can operate.

But the proposal contains a key difference from Michigan’s medical marijuana law. While that measure allows communities to opt in on dispensaries, under the recreational law communities must opt out through either a citizens’ petition or an ordinance adopted by a city council, making legalization the default.

‘Out of the Shadows’

Washtenaw County is home to Ann Arbor, which decriminalized marijuana in 1972.

Jeff Irwin, a former Democratic state representative in Michigan who has lived in Ann Arbor for 23 years, said he doesn’t feel decriminalization changed things substantially in his city.

“Anybody who has their eyes open knows that cannabis is in every community in our state,” he said. “Everybody who wants it doesn’t have much trouble getting it.”

Mr. Irwin is the political director of the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the advocacy group behind the legalization ballot initiative.

Legalization, Mr. Irwin believes, would move marijuana commerce into stores and out of neighborhoods. In a community where marijuana is legal, “you don’t have as much conflict with law enforcement,” he said. “You don’t have this constant cat-and-mouse game where police officers are dedicating 10 to 20 percent of their resources to catching cannabis users.”

Mr. Irwin said that if recreational marijuana is legalized and becomes available at dispensaries around the state, home growing — which is more labor-intensive — will no longer make sense for most Michigan residents.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D., Ann Arbor) touts a range of benefits to the legislation, including combating the mass incarceration of communities of color — black people in Michigan were arrested for possession of marijuana at 3.3 times the rate of white people in 2010, a ACLU study in 2013 found — and providing an estimated $100 million or more in tax funding for infrastructural improvements and education.

“If the goal of prohibition was to prevent people from using marijuana in an unsafe manner, we’ve failed in that way,” Mr. Rabhi said. “If people are using marijuana, they’re not able to use it in safe conditions. [By legalizing] we can bring it out of the shadows.”

The Medical Debate

Medical marijuana has long been legal in Michigan, and Ohio residents voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2016. But both states faltered recently when it came to getting dispensaries up and running.

In 2016, Michigan state legislators passed the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, creating a state-run licensing board to approve dispensary applications. The board originally mandated that all existing dispensaries in the state shut down while they were reviewed, and legislators had to pass a series of bills to allow dispensaries to stay open until they were granted approval.

The board began processing applications in February, but it has not issued any licenses yet. Legislators had to act to get state regulators to extend the processing deadline past its initial June 15 deadline, Mr. Rabhi said.

Mr. Irwin said this process has become “a real bottleneck” for providers.

“Them being in the gray part of the law screwed a lot of patients up,” said Kevin Spitler, who used to operate a medical marijuana dispensary in Oshtemo Township, Mich., that was shut down in 2013 after another legal change. “They’re still trying to put it together with dispensaries 10 years later, legislatively.”

Meanwhile, Ohio has already announced it will not meet its self-imposed deadline to make medical marijuana available for sale by Sept. 8, because of delays inspecting cultivators.

“With Ohio dragging their feet on a medical law, people are getting anxious,” said Mr. Spitler, who owns Toledo Hemp Center, a business that sells non-psychoactive hemp products.

In Ohio, recreational marijuana legalization is expected to head to the ballot in 2019. According to Mr. Spitler, this could shake things up for medical users under the state’s new system.

“If you have recreational stores, a lot of people won’t pay to see a doctor,” he said.

This could be compounded by the fact that Ohio’s medical law allows patients to consume marijuana in edible form or inhale it through a vaporizer, but not to smoke it, he added.

In Monroe County, some residents and officials are still doubtful about the drug’s merits.

“It’s just going to lead to more drug abuse,” Monroe resident Julie Reagan said.

As the opioid epidemic rages on, the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug is a common sticking point for opponents of the legalization effort. Mr. Pirrone, the Bedford Township supervisor, shares the same concerns as Ms. Reagan.

“You know how many kids are going to be getting into this?” he said. “What a mess. As if we don’t already have a mess with opiates.”

Mr. Spitler sees marijuana and other cannabis products like hemp as the solution, not the problem.

“A lot of people are getting pain relief from this,” he said. “If only 5 percent of the 30,000 people that have come into my store are using less [pharmaceutical pills], that’s 1,500 people that may not be moving onto a harder drug.”

Daniel Clauw, a pain researcher at the University of Michigan, said that while both cannabis and opioids can cause adverse health effects, cannabis is “more effective and infinitely safer” than opioids for treating chronic pain.

Despite the delays in Michigan and Ohio, some skeptics have been converted.

Tom Leonard, the Republican speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives, became convinced of the drug’s merits when he saw an elderly woman with severe arthritis testify that THC-infused lotion was the only thing that loosened her hands up, according to Gideon D’Assandro, Mr. Leonard’s spokesman.

Mr. Spitler saw something similar in his own life. When his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he said, he ground up cannabis leaves and added the juices to her diet.

Her pain and nausea improved, and she lived for a year, beating her prognosis by nine months.

“The doctors were kind of amazed,” he said.