On November 6, Michigan could become the first Midwestern state to legalize recreational marijuana if voters approve Proposal 1. That would be a big change for the Wolverine State, but Josh Hovey - a spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol - insists that Michigan's ballot initiative isn't a wild and revolutionary idea.
"Michigan is not blazing a trail here, we're not playing a guessing game about what will happen," he told Civilized. "There's a track record out there that we can look at in states that have already legalized adult use. Prohibition has failed in every one of its goals: it's failed to stop people from using, it's led to unsafe and untested products on the market and it's enriched criminal organizations. And just like the prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition of marijuana is hurting us more than the product that it's trying to protect us from."
Hovey added that Proposal 1 is actually designed to keep many aspects of the status quo intact - including current workplace policies toward cannabis and the rules of employee drug testing.
"I think those regulations help reassure voters that their kids' bus drivers are going to be banned from consuming cannabis and they'll be tested. And if they are consuming, they're going to be no longer bus drivers. It's a sensible policy that protects employers and ensures that workplaces are safe."
And for those who don't want to have to deal with cannabis, Hovey has a simple message: you already are.
"We tell them, 'Hey, you're dealing with marijuana and employee testing whether Proposal 1 passes or not. And even if this does pass, it won't change how you operate.' It's here. It's not going anywhere whether we pass Proposal 1 or not, so we might as well start regulating it."
Here's how Proposal 1 plans to do that.
Proposal 1 would allow anyone 21 or older to purchase, possess and consume cannabis in Michigan. Residents would be allowed to grow up to 12 plants per household, and adults could carry up to 2.5 ounces on themselves at any given time.
Both of those maximum amounts are higher than in legal states like Colorado and Oregon. The decision to raise the cap was actually suggested by a ranking member of the Michigan State Police, according to Hovey.
"We met with a captain from the state police who said, 'Why're you gonna make us enforce these possession limits? You don't have possession limits for alcohol. Don't make us do this work.'"
That sentiment was shared by other law enforcers.
"The feeling that we got from law enforcement was, 'What's the point of possession limits if we don't have possession limits for alcohol or tobacco?'" Hovey explained, adding that the limit also mirrors the regulations for the state's medical marijuana program.
"The possession limit under Michigan's medical marijuana law is already at 2.5 ounces and 12 plants per person. So ours is 12 plants per household for adult use. We wanted to follow the medical marijuana law closely because you don't want to have a lot of confusion between the initiatives. Having two competing possession limits confuses the public and confuses law enforcement."
Under Proposal 1, minors won't be allowed to touch cannabis. But instead of being charged with illegal possession, underage offenders will have to take a drug education program. Hovey says that rule was designed to prevent a bad decision from derailing a kid's future.
"It's making sure that kids' lives aren't ruined by what is a youthful mistake. If you're arrested and charged on marijuana possession, you can be disqualified from student loans, you can be barred from certain types of employment - like if you wanted to be a nurse. So that piece of the initiative ensures that opportunities aren't permanently lost for them."
Proposal 1 would also commit the state of Michigan to investing in marijuana research.
Like many other ballot initiatives, Proposal 1 plans to create a special marijuana tax for all cannabis sales (10 percent). And, like in other states, the new regulations would use that money to fund schools, roads and other infrastructure programs. But Proposal 1 has also earmarked a substantial amount of money for funding cannabis studies.
For at least two years, the state's Department of Treasury would be expected to provide $20 million annually to researchers studying how cannabis could help treat PTSD and other medical conditions common among veterans.
"Medical marijuana's ability to help veterans with PTSD is one of the most promising areas of study, but nobody's funding it," Hovey told Civilized. "So we saw an opportunity to raise some money for research as well as raising tax dollars for our roads and schools. If the feds aren't going to step up, then the state of Michigan will."
Those in Favor
So far, Proposal 1 has received official support from various advocacy groups, including the Marijuana Policy Project, Michigan NORML, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Patients Rights Association.
They've also received a massive boost from the state's Democratic leaders.
"Every state Democratic candidate has endorsed the campaign. So the Democrat running for governor, attorney general and so on," Hovey said.
And PBS host Rick Steves has also backed the ballot initiative, which Hovey says has been helpful with swaying older Michigan voters who like Steves's travel shows but don't care for cannabis.
"The only area where people are a little bit reluctant to support the ballot proposal is people 65 or older. But I think most people understand that marijuana is here in Michigan—it's gonna be here whether Proposal 1 passes or not, and the question is really whether we want to continue wasting our law enforcement resources on a failed policy or if we're gonna do something different."
He also stressed that Proposal 1 isn't designed to promote marijuana use.
"They may not like marijuana, which is fine. This is not a pro-marijuana proposal. This is about pro-regulation and understanding that prohibition doesn't work. Michigan voters don't have to be pro-marijuana to support Proposal 1. They just have to agree that we need to stop banging our heads against the wall and wasting our tax dollars enforcing a failed law."
Unfortunately, there's no shortage of opposition to Proposition 1.
"There's a group called Healthy and Productive Michigan, which is funded almost entirely by [the anti-cannabis lobbying group] Project SAM," Hovey told Civilized. "They've put at least a quarter of a million dollars into the opposition. They've done a good job of getting most law enforcement groups across the state to oppose the campaign. But we have the data on our side that shows if you want law enforcement to be able to focus on actual issues and solving crime, then legalization is the way forward."
He added that healthcare groups have also sided against them over similarly unfounded fears.
"The Michigan State Medical Society came out in opposition because of the assumption that use is going to go up among teens [following legalization], but the results from the other legal states don't bear out those facts. So while no one on either side of this issue wants teen use to go up, it's just not shown to be a legitimate concern based on the results of Colorado and Washington [where underage cannabis consumption has actually dropped]."
Those sorts of arguments are especially frustrating for the legalization campaign, whose volunteers work tirelessly to back up their position while opponents can make unfounded claims.
"We're working very hard to make sure that all of our references are cited and that they're sourced from peer-reviewed journals and other independent sources," Hovey said. "Then you have a county sheriff stand up and say, 'Crime is going to increase.' And there's no other sources behind it, other than [the fact that] the man in the uniform says so, so it must be true. That's frustrating."
But Hovey is convinced that they will be able to get their message across by relying on facts.
"I think we're in a really good position with the campaign. It's just a matter of pushing back on a lot of scare tactics. And sometimes people are legitimately concerned. This kind of a big change can be scary for some people. But when you can point to the facts and show that the sky hasn't fallen in Colorado and Washington—in fact, those states are thriving. So I think we've got a really strong message, and a lot of really compelling facts on our side. We're dealing with the challenges of marijuana today, and we're going to be dealing with them tomorrow regardless of the outcome of Proposal 1."
Chances of Passing
If the current polling data reflects the actual outcome of the ballot initiative, then Proposal 1 should pass with a comfortable margin.
"We're polling very well in Michigan—in the high 50s to low 60s," Hovey told Civilized. "And that support runs across pretty much every demographic and every region of the state. So as long as people turn out to vote, we're going to be winning with a pretty significant majority. This is an issue that no matter who I talk to - unless they're in law enforcement or can't legally say anything about it - people understand that marijuana is not a big deal and that it's been overhyped and that it's here. It's not going anywhere whether we pass Proposal 1 or not, so we might as well start regulating it."
If passed, we should see Michigan's first recreational dispensaries open up shop in 2020.
"The initiative itself gives about two years for the application rules to be set up and for licenses to be granted," Hovey explained. "It might not actually take that long since the state's already set up that licensing structure for medical marijuana, and we follow that licensing structure very, very closely. But it all depends on how fast the state can get up and running."
The Bigger Picture
Repealing marijuana prohibition would make a huge difference in the lives of countless Michiganders who would never have had a brush-in with the law if it hadn't been for prohibition.
"We arrest more than 23,000 people for marijuana charges every year," Hovey told Civilized. "87 percent of arrests are for possession. And 70 percent of those arrests for possession are for a quarter-ounce or less. We're spending a huge amount of police resources and Michigan tax dollars enforcing petty possession issues. And 82 percent of those arrests are stand-alone events that involve only a single-arrest record, so if it weren't for people being arrested for possession, they would never be in the criminal justice system."
He added that Michigan's approach could become the template for other states to follow.
"We think we have what will be a model law for the rest of the country. We're learned a lot of best practices from the other states that have already done this. And we're hoping to light the path forward because so far, legalization has been restricted to the coasts. And we want to be the north coast of legalization, as it were."
But they might have to share that honor with another Midwestern state. North Dakota will also vote on legalizing recreational cannabis on Election Day. If both ballot initiatives pass, then the total number of legal states would jump from 9 to 11 overnight. And that could be enough to push the federal government to finally repeal federal cannabis prohibition.