Published in Economic Development
Voters in Michigan approved a ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults over age 21. Voters in Michigan approved a ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults over age 21. COURTESY PHOTO

Michigan first of Midwest states to legalize recreational marijuana

BY Sunday, November 11, 2018 09:45pm

Proponents of statewide and local ballot initiatives went four-for-four on election night, establishing a new process for drawing legislative districts, increasing access to voting and dedicating funding for early childhood development in Kent County.

But perhaps the most significant measure affecting the business community is voters’ decision to legalize recreational marijuana for adults.

Supporters say the historic move is a policy sea change on an issue that’s gaining public acceptance, and — as the first state in the Midwest to do so — will pave the way for others in the region.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to really open up the door in the Midwest,” said MILegalize board member Tami VandenBerg. “Our hope is this could be a catalyst. It’s nice to get in front with this.”

Unofficial results last week showed Proposal 1 passed 56 percent to 44 percent. In 2008, voters approved the state’s medical marijuana law by 63 percent.

The law goes into effect 10 days after the votes are certified by the Board of State Canvassers, which takes about three weeks. After that, residents over the age of 21 can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in public and 10 ounces at home, and grow up to 12 plants. The law allows the state up to two years to adopt rules around growing, distribution and retail sales, similar to what’s in place for medical marijuana.

Also similar to medical marijuana, the law allows municipalities to opt out of the program and reject marijuana businesses.

Among the unanswered questions moving forward, business groups say employers are still struggling to understand what this means for drug-free workplaces and attracting qualified talent. The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is hosting an event this month with The Right Place Inc. and Talent 2025 Inc. exploring marijuana’s effects on employment.

“We understand this will be a journey for us, our members, the community and the state,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber. “The biggest thing we’re encouraging members to do is remind employees about their drug policies.”

Under the law, employers are still allowed to maintain drug-free work policies and testing, but they have been concerned about finding enough drug-free applicants to fill talent shortages.

Matthew Schweich, Prop 1 campaign director with the Marijuana Policy Project, rejects the argument.

“There’s no link between legalization policies and state economies suffering. To say employers won’t find talented people — that hasn’t been the case in other states that have legalized,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there looking for jobs. If they know using marijuana could jeopardize their opportunity, I think they’ll act accordingly.”

Schweich points out that Michigan is now the second-most populous state to legalize recreational marijuana and “maintains the momentum of the marijuana reform movement. This is an important victory. I expect other Midwest states will follow suit.”

In her first press conference as governor-elect, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer said she also would explore the possibility of expunging records of some people with previous marijuana charges. This is also a priority for advocates but wasn’t included in the proposal language.

Johnston said the GR Chamber hasn’t taken a position on expunging records related to marijuana charges.

“That would need a detailed review,” Johnston said. “We have very much been supporters of criminal justice reform, understanding a vast majority of people who go into the corrections system come back to society.”

Meanwhile, legalization opponents have vowed to “explore all options” to challenge the law either through courts or the Legislature.

“We’re optimistic to be able to work with communities, organizations and individuals who want to minimize the impact of legalized recreational marijuana in Michigan,” said Scott Greenlee, president of the opposition group Healthy and Productive Michigan. “We’re exploring all of our options from a legal, policy and practicality standpoint.”

Still, supporters said the election of Whitmer and Dana Nessel for attorney general — both Democrats — boosts their hopes of a smooth transition.

“We would be looking at a very different situation. Bill Schuette has been absolutely terrible on medical marijuana,” VandenBerg said. “The fact that we got Prop 1 passed is big. That we got candidates in really key positions who endorsed Prop 1 is an even bigger win.”

Gerrymandering and voting rights

By an even wider margin — 61 percent to 39 percent — voters approved a constitutional amendment that creates a bipartisan redistricting commission to draw new legislative and congressional districts.

Proposal 2 started as a grassroots effort by Caledonia resident Katie Fahey in the days after the 2016 presidential election. In a fairly benign Facebook post at the time, Fahey wrote: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan, if you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.”

Over the course of nearly two years, the Prop 2 campaign brought in thousands of volunteer supporters and millions of dollars in spending, including from outside groups near the end.

“Democracy does not work if we, the people, sit at home and let politicians take advantage of their power. We must show up to make our voices heard and our votes count,” Fahey said in a statement Wednesday.

However, state and local business groups opposed the measure and challenged it in court, saying it was a convoluted and lengthy change to the state’s constitution. Opponents also have raised concerns about the selection of commissioners, the pace of the process and costs.

Johnston said the GR Chamber remains concerned about how maintaining municipal boundaries will be addressed, how “communities of interest” around gerrymandering are defined and who is selected for the redistricting commission.

“It’s going to be interesting for our state; it’s important we do our best to get it right,” he said.

The third statewide ballot proposal passed by the widest margin, 67 percent to 33 percent, according to unofficial results.

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