Pot-law back­ers look to Mid­west

Michi­gan and North Dakota have put recre­ational mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion on the bal­lot, a first for the re­gion.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By David Eg­gert

LANS­ING, Mich. — Back­ers of broad mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion are look­ing to break through a geo­graphic bar­rier in Novem­ber and get their first foothold in the Mid­west af­ter a string of elec­tion vic­to­ries in North­east­ern and Western states.

Michi­gan and North Dakota, where vot­ers pre­vi­ously au­tho­rized med­i­cal mar­i­juana, will de­cide if the drug should be le­gal for any adult 21 and older. They would be­come the 10th and 11th states to le­gal­ize so-called recre­ational mar­i­juana since 2012, light­ning speed in po­lit­i­cal terms.

Mean­time, Mis­souri and Utah will weigh med­i­cal mar­i­juana, which is per­mit­ted in 31 states af­ter vot­ers in con­ser­va­tive Ok­la­homa ap­proved such use in June. Even if Utah’s ini­tia­tive is de­feated, a com­pro­mise reached last week be­tween ad­vo­cates and op­po­nents in­clud­ing the Mor­mon church would have the Leg­is­la­ture le­gal­ize med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

“We’ve kind of reached a crit­i­cal mass of ac­cep­tance,” said Re­becca Haf­fa­jee, a Univer­sity of Michi­gan as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of health man­age­ment and pol­icy. She said the coun­try may be at a “break­ing point” where change is in­evitable at the fed­eral level be­cause so many states are in con­flict with U.S. pol­icy that treats mar­i­juana as a con­trolled sub­stance like heroin.

“Gen­er­ally, peo­ple ei­ther find a ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fit or en­joy the sub­stance and want to do so with­out the fear of be­ing a crim­i­nal for us­ing it,” Haf­fa­jee said.

Two years ago, vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia ap­proved a bal­lot mea­sure cre­at­ing the world’s largest le­gal mar­i­juana mar­ket. Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Alaska, Colorado and Ne­vada are other Western states with le­gal mar­i­juana for med­i­cal and per­sonal uses. On the other side of the coun­try, Mass­a­chu­setts, Maine, Vermont and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., have le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana, and ev­ery other North­east­ern state has ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

In Michi­gan, sur­veys show the pub­lic’s re­cep­tive­ness to mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion tracks sim­i­larly with na­tion­wide polling that finds about 60 per­cent sup­port, ac­cord­ing to Gallup and the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

The Wash­ing­ton-based Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Pro­ject was the driv­ing force be­hind suc­cess­ful le­gal­iza­tion ini­tia­tives in other states and has given at least $444,000 for the Michi­gan bal­lot drive.

“The elec­torate is rec­og­niz­ing that pro­hi­bi­tion doesn’t work. There’s also a grow­ing so­ci­etal ac­cep­tance of mar­i­juana use on a per­sonal level,” said Matthew Sch­we­ich, the pro­ject’s deputy di­rec­tor.

“Our cul­ture has al­ready le­gal­ized mar­i­juana. Now it’s a ques­tion of, ‘How quickly will the laws catch up?’ ” added Sch­we­ich, also the cam­paign di­rec­tor for the Michi­gan le­gal­iza­tion ef­fort, known as the Coali­tion to Reg­u­late Mar­i­juana Like Al­co­hol.

Mid­west vot­ers have con­sid­ered recre­ational le­gal­iza­tion just once be­fore, in 2015, when Ohio over­whelm­ingly re­jected it. Sup­port­ers said the re­sult was more back lash against al­low­ing only cer­tain pri­vate in­vestors to con­trol grow­ing fa­cil­i­ties than op­po­si­tion to mar­i­juana.

Pro­po­nents of Michi­gan’s mea­sure say it would align with a new, strong reg­u­la­tory sys­tem for med­i­cal mar­i­juana busi­nesses and add roughly $130 mil­lion an­nu­ally in tax rev­enue, specif­i­cally for road re­pairs, schools and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. Mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and re­tired po­lice of­fi­cers are among those back­ing le­gal­iza­tion in on­line ads that were launched Tues­day.

Crit­ics say the Michi­gan pro­posal is out of step and cite pro­vi­sions al­low­ing a pos­ses­sion limit of 2.5 ounces that is higher than many other states and a 16 per­cent tax rate that is lower. Op­po­nents in­clude cham­bers of com­merce and law en­force­ment groups along with doc­tors, the Catholic Church and or­ga­ni­za­tions fight­ing sub­stance abuse.

Randy Richardville, a for­mer Repub­li­can leg­isla­tive leader and spokesman for the op­po­si­tion group Healthy and Pro­duc­tive Michi­gan, said adults — even those with­out se­ri­ous health prob­lems — al­ready can eas­ily ob­tain pot un­der the state’s lax med­i­cal mar­i­juana law. The bal­lot pro­posal, he said, would lead to a more “stoned” work­force, car crashes and crimes, and in­creased health risks for teens.

“This has noth­ing to do with a cit­i­zens’ ini­tia­tive with a whole bunch of peo­ple out there that said they would like to smoke mar­i­juana recre­ation­ally and re­spon­si­bly,” Richardville said.

Dr. Don­ald Con­dit, an or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon in Grand Rapids who is help­ing lead physi­cians’ op­po­si­tion, said few doc­tors see a prob­lem with, for ex­am­ple, ter­mi­nal can­cer pa­tients us­ing mar­i­juana to ease their pain.

But peo­ple should think harder about full le­gal­iza­tion be­cause mar­i­juana is be­com­ing “very, very potent” and “this stuff could hit the teenage de­vel­op­ing brain like a ton of bricks,” he said.

Back­ers counter that teens’ use of mar­i­juana has not in­creased in states that al­ready have ap­proved recre­ational use and point to the drug’s other ben­e­fits, like as a safer sub­sti­tute for painkillers amid the deadly opi­oid epi­demic.

“It’ll take the scourge of the old days when drug deal­ers sold heroin and crack and metham­phetamines and mar­i­juana — it was all lumped to­gether” said Stu Carter, who owns Utopia Gar­dens, a med­i­cal mar­i­juana shop in Detroit. “Now we can pull that away from that il­le­gal drug world and make it much safer for the con­sumer.”

In North Dakota, le­gal­iza­tion faces an up­hill bat­tle. No sig­nif­i­cant out­side sup­port­ers have fi­nanced the ef­fort, which comes as the state still is set­ting up a med­i­cal mar­i­juana sys­tem vot­ers ap­proved by a wide mar­gin two years ago.

The med­i­cal mar­i­juana cam­paign in pre­dom­i­nantly Mor­mon Utah, which has re­ceived $293,000 from the Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Pro­ject, was jolted this month when Gov. Gary Her­bert said he will call law­mak­ers into a spe­cial post-elec­tion ses­sion to pass a com­pro­mise deal into law re­gard­less of how the pub­lic vote goes.

Med­i­cal mar­i­juana also is on the bal­lot in Mis­souri and while the con­cept has sig­nif­i­cant sup­port, vot­ers may be con­fused by its bal­lot pre­sen­ta­tion.

Sup­port­ers gath­ered enough sig­na­tures to place three ini­tia­tives be­fore vot­ers. Two would change the state con­sti­tu­tion; the third would amend state law. If all three pass, con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments take prece­dence over state law, and which­ever amend­ment re­ceives the most votes would over­rule the other.

An or­ga­nizer of one amend­ment, physi­cian and at­tor­ney Brad Brad­shaw, said it is un­clear if hav­ing three ini­tia­tives could split sup­port­ers so much that some or all of the pro­pos­als fail.

CAR­LOS OS­O­RIO/AP

Michi­gan and North Dakota, where vot­ers pre­vi­ously au­tho­rized med­i­cal mar­i­juana, will de­cide now if the drug should be le­gal for any adult 21 and older.

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