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Pot plan to go on the ballot


The Senate Republican-led drive to approve the citizen initiative to legalize recreational marijuana died in the House on Tuesday after a final attempt to sway a few Democratic votes fell short, meaning the question will appear on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot, likely as Proposal 1.

Republicans wanting to approve recreational marijuana? How did this get within roughly 10 to 15 votes away from happening?

A couple things were at play. First of all, there are plenty of traditional Republican supporters like developer Ron Boji — owner of Lansing’s tallest building — who have long seen expanded marijuana legalization as a way to make money.

The Legislature recently created a five-tier regulatory scheme of growers, testers, transporters, producers and sellers that provides a lot of opportunity for investors with clean records to get involved in medical marijuana.

Recreational marijuana only expands that universe of potential profits. The problem is that the citizens’ initiative that received 277,000 Michigan voter signatures allows for essentially an unregulated “microbrew” of sorts that doesn’t fall under the aforementioned scheme.

Those businesses interests not only saw this as a gaping loophole from a safety standpoint, but a backdoor way for unregulated entities to siphon future business away from people who had to play by a tougher set of rules.

Business interests like certainty. They saw polling that shows recreational marijuana passing in Michigan with about 60 percent support in November. The best way to make sure these microbrews face state regulations is for the Legislature to amend the citizens’ initiative.

Under the Constitution, the Legislature can amend a citizens’ initiative with a simple majority only if it adopts the measure. If it does not and the people vote it into law, it takes the lawmakers a three-quarters supermajority.

The business entities know how difficult this feat can be, particularly if minority Democrats use their newfound leverage to demand things they don’t want.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Sen. Mike Shirkey, the heir apparent for the 2019-20 term, saw the wisdom in doing something they’d likely never do — legalize marijuana — so they could better control the future process.

The other dynamic at play is the 2018 elections. Legislative Republicans fear a marijuana legalization ballot questions will drive to the polls tens of thousands of single-issue voters who have been waiting most of their adult life to legalize pot.

Roughly speaking, at least 70 percent of these voters likely will go Democratic for the rest of their ticket, helping Gretchen Whitmer or whoever else ends up being the nominee and Democratic House and Senate candidates in competitive legislative districts.

Rep. Brandt Iden of Kalamazoo, who represents Western Michigan University, and Rep. Roger Hauck of Mt. Pleasant, who represents Central Michigan University, in particular, are probably sweating bullets that a bunch of college kids are going to show up Nov. 6, vote to legalize weed and vote them out of office, just as they helped Bernie Sanders become the Democratic presidential choice in Michigan two years ago.

However, there is another political factor at play. Conservative Republicans do not want to be on record supporting recreational marijuana no matter the circumstances.

Folks like House Speaker Tom Leonard and Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, both of whom are running for attorney general, may see a “yes” vote on legalized dope as a killer at the Michigan Republican Party convention, where this year’s nominee is selected.

Someone like a Rep. Gary Glenn of Midland and others didn’t want to disadvantage themselves in an upcoming Republican primary by being a “yes.” They also don’t want a “no” vote hurting them in the General Election, so no vote at all was the preferred option.

Legislative Democratic leadership didn’t want any part of this either. They want the likely higher voter turnout and they don’t want to lose their leverage on future negotiations on marijuana.

Some Democrats, like Rep. Bob Kosowski of Westland, said he would have negotiated on legalizing pot legislatively if Republicans would have agreed to not adopt the prevailing wage ballot proposal, which was slated to happen today in both chambers.

That, apparently, was a non-starter for Republicans, who have been waiting years to slay prevailing wage.

So the end result was this. The Senate Republicans apparently had the 20 “yes” votes to adopt the citizens’ initiative legislatively, but the House struggled to get beyond 40, short of the 55 votes needed.

Leonard held court with a flock of news reporters afterward as the lead spokesperson for those legislators who managed to stop legalization … for now, anyway.

(Kyle Melinn, news editor of the capital newsletter MIRS, is at melinnky@gmail.com.)


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