Nov. 18 2015 11:45 AM

Undeterred by Ohio vote, marijuana backers here are optimistic

Organizers for one of two full-fledged ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana statewide hope to have the necessary 250,000 valid signatures in the next six weeks to make the November 2016 election.

The Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee, calling itself MILegalize, is approaching its 180-day collection period around the Christmas holiday.

“We’ve been saying we want to give people the gift of freedom for Christmas,” said Jeff Hank, chairman of MILegalize. Without disclosing the number of signatures gathered so far, Hank said the group is “on pace, within the capability” to make their goal.

MILegalize is one of two active campaigns looking to legalize recreational marijuana among adults. Along with the Michigan Cannabis Coalition, the two groups have taken different approaches to designing a regulatory structure.

While MILegalize is organized largely by longtime marijuana activists in the state, MCC’s leadership includes experienced conservative political operatives.

Matt Marsden, MCC’s spokesman and a Republican political consultant, could not be reached for comment.

However, The Detroit News reported late last month that the MCC abruptly stopped collecting signatures for its campaign. Marsden told the paper it was a “strategic pause” to analyze the 210,000 signatures it had already collected.

Marsden is the co-founder of RevSix Data Systems, a southeast Michigan voter data company that is largely funding the campaign.

In addition to the groups’ leadership, key details separate their regulatory models. MI- Legalize would allow people 21 and older to grow up to 12 plants at home, while MCC calls for two to four flowering plants if a municipality allows it.

The MCC plan generally emphasizes growing cannabis at state-licensed commercial operations, rather than in homes, that would later be sold at retail outlets.

“What we’re trying to do is create a new retail market, a new industry,” Marsden told City Pulse in July. “Two flowering plants could generate a lot (of usable cannabis) per household. I don’t know that it’s politically feasible to win a ballot proposal if the little old lady next door is afraid she’s going to have 12 flowering plants growing next door to her.”

Unlike MILegalize, the Cannabis Coalition intentionally leaves out specifics on tax rates and protection from prosecution that would later be set by a paid, five-member Cannabis Control Board.

The MI Legalize proposal sets a maximum 10 percent excise tax rate for non-medical pot sold. That revenue would be directed to education, transportation and local units of government.

“We always say we don’t have a full solution, but we have a partial solution,” Hank said, referring to the concept of “pot for potholes,” or marijuana revenue helping fund roads.

The two groups have reportedly raised similar amount of money based on campaign finance reports filed in late October. Each had raised more than $300,000 at the time.

“We’re definitely far down the line, much farther than people thought we would make it,” Hank said.

The Michigan Responsibility Council, which earlier this year was exploring a possible 2016 ballot initiative, has backed off of its legalization efforts to focus on medical marijuana policy, said Suzie Mitchell, the Council’s president and CEO.

‘Vindicated’ by Ohio vote

A variety of factors differentiate the situation in Michigan with a pot legalization referendum that was voted down by Ohio voters this month, 64 percent to 36 percent.

It was held in an off-election year and was criticized even by legalization advocates for giving exclusive commercial growing rights to 10 facilities.

“After seeing Responsible Ohio go down, we feel vindicated,” Hank said. “We took the exact opposite approach to legalization because we figured there would be a similar attempt in Michigan. When we got going we tried to prevent that oligarchy model.”

Hank sees an advantage in attempting to get the question before Michigan voters during a presidential election year.

Mitchell, whose group is advocating state legislators to amend proposed medical marijuana dispensary regulations to limit the number of grow facilities (see related story), believes the Ohio vote won’t impact Michigan’s efforts.

“It’s a totally different set of circumstances,” she said. “All we know is voters did not want site-specific grows in Ohio in 2015.”

Meanwhile, public polling shows steadily increasing support nationwide for legalizing recreational marijuana.

According to a presentation from local polling firm EPIC-MRA in Lansing last week, a nationwide Gallup poll last month found 58 percent of respondents said marijuana should be legal for recreational use. That’s a roughly 30 percent swing over the past 20 years.

A December 2014 poll of Michigan voters showed 50 percent would be a “yes” vote on legalization.

While Hank is optimistic about the strong public support if the question reaches voters, there’s still one glaring hurdle.

“Until the signatures are in, it’s not over,” he said. “But we believe if we get on the ballot, we’ll win.”