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How Michigan Could Pave the Way for Legalization in the Midwest

Now that Michigan has legalized recreational cannabis, will the rest of the Midwest follow suit?

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By a relatively wide margin, Michigan voters on Tuesday said “yes” to legalizing adult-use cannabis for adults, in a vote that spanned party lines and pushed against vehement opposition groups.

The adoption of the ballot proposal makes Michigan the 10th U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older; and the first state in the Midwest to do so, with a margin of 56-44. In 2008, the state adopted a proposal to legalize the use of medical cannabis. So why did it take a decade for Michigan to go from medical to recreational marijuana?

“It’s a state that relies on facts, not fiction,” says Josh Hovey, communications director for Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA), the main Michigan-based campaign behind Proposal 1.

“Michigan is not usually a state that gets out in front on bold reforms like ending marijuana prohibition,” he says. “As a campaign, we are thrilled that Michigan will be a leader when it comes to cannabis reform in the Midwest. We’ve developed what we believe will be a model law for other states in the Midwest to look to. It’s one that learns from the best practices in states like Colorado and Washington.”

Recreational dispensaries (which could be dubbed ‘provisioning centers’) should be up and running sometime in 2020, though Hovey says the groundwork is technically laid out for them to start operating sooner. Proposal 1 includes special consideration for small businesses, meaning that one registered grower can sell up to 150 plants directly from their business without going through an intermediary.

“The state already is licensing medical marijuana businesses and we follow that law very closely in the proposal. Theoretically, the state could follow the rules already put in place for the application process and it could be available even more quickly,” Hovey says. “It will take some time for the state to staff up and make sure they’re able to add the capacity to implement the regulations and licenses. Because local communities will each decide what level of comfort they have with these, it may take time for medical marijuana to move across the state.”

Proposal 1’s loudest opponents have been Healthy and Productive Michigan (HPM) and the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Scott Greenlee, president of HPM, released the following statement about the election results: “Our committee will urge and support local communities who have a desire to opt out and actively explore all legislative, policy, and legal options. We will continue to educate Michigan citizens on the harms of marijuana commercialization.”

Neither group has responded to interview requests from High Times.

Facts versus Fear

Hovey says that pro-legalization groups have offered facts, including detailed data supporting economic growth and benefits to relieving law enforcement’s focus on cannabis-related crimes. Meanwhile, the anti-marijuana groups have largely focused on spreading fear.

“We are citing credible facts, while the other side shouts Reefer Madness,” Hovey says. “It’s not that they don’t have credible concerns. We don’t want people to get into car accidents or anything like that. It’s just clear that one side wanted to have a fact-based discussion and the other a fear-based discussion. And we have data showing neither that teen use nor auto accidents have gone up in states like Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been legalized for years now.”

So what does Michigan’s move mean for the rest of the Midwest? Matt Schweich, deputy director of the nationwide Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), says it will add to the existing momentum in Illinois and Ohio to adopt legalization policies.

“Michigan’s success proves that legalization will not be confined to the Northeast and the West,” Schweich said. “Marijuana policy reform is a truly bipartisan issue, and Michigan has proven that yet again. It suggests to me that we are close to achieving major federal reform through Congress. It also demonstrates that we can pass legalization laws in many more states, either through a ballot initiative or legislative action.”

As of now, only Vermont has legalized cannabis through the legislature, says Schweich. But he expects more states to follow suit next year. “It would be my preference for states to take legislative action and bring about better marijuana policies sooner rather than later,” he says. “When there is popular support for reform and elected officials who refuse to take action, then a ballot initiative is the only recourse.”

The Human Side of Legalization

Vic Doucette is a Southfield resident who acquired his medical marijuana card in April 2018, following a random and mysterious back pain. He said as an ulcer patient, he had to reject his doctor’s first recommendation which was a high-dose Motrin. The second recommendation, Doucette says, was Tylenol. It was no better at pain relief than the water he used to swallow it.

“Doctors are hesitant to prescribe opioids these days, and for good reason,” Doucette said. “I don’t even like to take them, except that they work. I dislike the other effects opioids have on me. But I needed something, and traditional medicine wasn’t going to give it to me. So, I applied for the card and got it in about five weeks.”

Doucette says he uses cannabis for pain relief, to treat insomnia, and because he likes the effect it has on him.

Alison Chege, a West Bloomfield resident, sat out the vote, but says she believes that cannabis should be legalized. “It’s remarkably harmless compared to some of the garbage the FDA approves,” she says.

She doesn’t agree with the route to decriminalization, however. She would rather see it agreed upon by lawmakers. But she says she is happy with the election results.

“Overall,” Chege says, “it’s a step in the right direction to decriminalize a benign substance proven in the literature to provide both health benefits and symptom relief.”

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