On Tuesday, the Michigan state legislature briefly considered a law that would have fully legalized recreational marijuana for adults in the state. It didn’t make it to a vote – Republicans leading the effort abandoned it when they realized they did not have the numbers – and because Tuesday was the deadline for the legislature, that means they can no longer consider it.
But, it turns out, that’s a very good thing. According to marijuana advocates, passing this through the legislature instead of as a ballot initiative – as it was originally intended – would leave the bill open for partisan changes. “The intent [of pushing it through the legislature] is not in the interest of public opinion,” says Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “It’s in the interest of political expediency.”
First, a little background: The initiative was put together by the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign, and is based on Michigan’s successful 2016 medical marijuana initiative. If it passes, it would allow adults to carry up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, keep up to 10 ounces at home and grow up to 12 plants.
In April, the initiative’s 360,000 signatures were certified, and the measure was officially headed to the ballot. That’s when Republicans in the State Senate decided to try and get their hands on the language. If it were to pass by a popular vote, it would take two-thirds of the House and the Senate to make any amendments – but if they passed it as a law, a simple majority would be able to tweak the law however they want.
“Republican lawmakers wanted to have easier access to making changes, [which] might not have been bipartisan changes that are good for everybody,” says Josh Hovey, communications director for the Regulate Marijuana campaign. “Now any changes that are made should have to be far more bipartisan of a solution.”
According to Hovey, those in the campaign were nervous that there was going to be some significant restructuring of legalization if it went through the legislature, including stripping Michigan residents of the ability to grow at home. Putting it into the legislature, he says, was an attempt to make the proposal “more of a monopolized system,” he says. “That’s where there’s some relief among the campaign, [since we hadn’t] seen anything in writing that it would have been left as written.”
However, there are certainly drawbacks to the initiative as is. For example, there’s no clause that would expunge convictions for those people – mostly of color – who have been imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. “We had very much hoped to include expungement, and had included it in the first draft of our ballot language,” says Hovey. This, he says, would be something that could be passed by a two-thirds vote after it the initiative goes through. “Our hope is that the legislature will address this issue shortly after passing, and we know many members of our coalition will be urging them to do just that.”
This, says NORML’s Strekal, is why his organization favors ballot measures over legislation. “Traditionally, we trust voters to make these decisions more than we trust lawmakers,” he says. “So we’re looking forward to the voters of Michigan being able to cast their vote, to codify that it’s the public will to legalize marijuana for responsible adult use.”