Debate Heats Up Over Michigan Marijuana Legalization Proposals
Advocates are beginning to explore and weigh the merits of several proposed plans to legalize marijuana in Michigan via petition drive and ballot initiative. Like many political discussions, the debate sometimes gets heated- as it did on the Planet Green Trees Radio Show on Thursday, February 19.
Planet Green Trees has broadcast a weekly marijuana law-themed radio show for more than four years. Host Michael Komorn and co-hosts Rick Thompson, Jamie Lowell and Chad Carr regularly interview national guests and Michigan newsmakers, including NORML’s Keith Stroup and Dan Skye from High Times.
One frequent guest caller on the show is Tim Beck, co-founder of the Safer Michigan Coalition. He’s lead many successful local ballot petition drives to liberalize marijuana laws in Michigan over the last decade.
Beck and Thompson squared off over support for a proposed marijuana legalization scheme recently exposed in a Detroit News story. The Michigan Responsibility Council (MRC) group, composed of hardline Republican power players, proposes to eliminate the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA, the Act), eliminate all home-based cultivation of marijuana, divide the state into ten regions and allow one company per region to grow and supply all the recreational marijuana for that region’s market.
During the interview Beck claimed that principals for the MRC group had already “solicited” him on this proposal early on. He said he knows these individuals from long ago and is supportive of “any proposal that gets us full legalization.” He described the MRC organization as one fighting to protect ”the regular recreational user who just wants to get high.”
Beck dismissed other legalization schemes initiated by Michigan’s marijuana advocacy organization as “fantasy” and went so far as to attack the legislature’s own attempts at regulating medical marijuana. He referred to the Pharmaceutical Grade Marijuana Act as “a hoax” and the plan’s principal driver, lobbyist Chuck Perricone, as a “parasite” who “milked” his Canadian clients.
An insider’s look at what the MRC proposal is all about, and responses from citizen advocates to the various proposals offered up.
Lowell interviewed the show’s first call-in guest, Kari Boiter from Americans for Safe Access, calling from Washington State. A proposal similar to the MRC’s is afoot in Ohio; Lowell asked Boiter about the national picture and the monopoly-style growing scheme. ”(Are) we seeing that in other parts of the country?” he asked.
“It’s absolutely the power struggle that’s happening here,” she answered. Later, she revealed that she was telephoning the interview in from a position outside the Washington State capitol building and added, “We have quite a fight on our hands here. I am at the capitol every single day… we can’t afford to lose a single inch of ground here.”
In response to Lowell’s question, Boiter said, “There are some who will say, as long as I’m not going to prison, I don’t care if you take everybody else to prison, or they’ll say as long as I have the ability to grow this plant, marijuana, and make money off of it I don’t mind if patients have their rights restricted.”
In describing the proponents of a dump-medical-for-legal proposal, Boiter said: “They don’t have the fundamental understanding of how different this is as a medicine versus a recreational plant. The fear is, when you have ten large farms, how many different strains are those farms going to have? How are you going to make sure that those specialty strains that are low (financial) yield strains are grown by those farms?”
Boiter’s interview ended with this sentiment: “Rather than dividing ourselves as a community we can all work together… so that all of us can be legally allowed to grow it in our own back yard.”
LEGALIZATION IN MICHIGAN
Thompson, who is a Board member of three statewide marijuana rights advocacy organizations, was asked by Carr about his thoughts on legalization, and he suggested that the national diversity of marijuana legalization programs provides Michigan marijuana law reform advocates with an advantage. “I like the concept of legalization but each program is unique. We see that Alaska’s legalization is far different from the one proposed originally in Oregon and the one that passed recently, and both of those programs are different from Colorado and Washington.”
Interpreting the value of diversity is a frequent source of friction between various segments of an otherwise unified community. “I think it’s a responsible action on the part of states to take successful portions of programs from around the nation and adopt them into a legalization program that works for the people. But if the only people having input into what those successful programs are, are law enforcement and giant business concerns, and patients and caregivers are not involved in the process, then the people are going to be alienated by whatever comes out of that discussion.”
Thompson agreed that there is a way to promote a legalization program that addresses the concerns of the marijuana support community. “I would favor a legalization process provide it is fully vetted and approved by the people. A petition drive in order to get one voted on by the people instead of one voted on by the legislators who are largely bought and paid for by lobbying interests is the only way I would accept legalization in Michigan.”
“Part of the conundrum we have with legalization is… who is going to be able to participate on a production level. We can’t exclusively rely on big business in order to provide that. If we were to do that in other industries we would only have McDonald’s food to eat.”
WHAT DOES LEGAL LOOK LIKE?
Host Komorn, a criminal defense attorney, countered by offering the Keith Stroup argument that anything legal is better than anything else.
“There are people that are driving around with marijuana illegally they are not patients and they have been doing it for a long time. They get it, they have it and they know if they get caught they are going to be in trouble. If you asked those persons what they would prefer they might say, ‘If I want to carry an ounce I want to have it and that’s it,'” Komorn said.
“Those are the people that go to the polls and they elect policy if that option is given to them. It is incumbent upon people like yourself and myself and Jamie Lowell and Chad and all the rest of the folks listening to give the populace the greatest opportunity to express what they truly want,” Thompson challenged.
Frustrations with the traditional avenues of a representative democracy were raised, in reference to the December Surprise hijacking of the Provisioning Centers Act and Smoking Alternatives bills by the Michigan Sheriffs Association during the legislature’s last day of session. “Our experience in the last several years has been that, often times those concerns are completely brushed aside when someone like the sheriffs association decides to make a phonebanking call and all of the work we’ve done with parents and petitioning is useless,” Thompson observed.
“Not everyone thinks you have to be able to grow a plant for it to be legal,” reminded Komorn. “Cannabis users are people that will generally favor the point of being able to possess it and use it without being arrested.”
Komorn echoed Chad Carr’s sentiments from earlier in the program. “Unless you can grow yourself there is no control… Chad would argue that you are only then truly legal to possess it.”
“You can still be charged with felonies” for possessing legal plants, Chad expanded.
“And if anyone’s getting it, there’s delivery” of marijuana, another felony charge, agreed Komorn.
He later revisited the topic.
“Legalization really only provides protection for possession,” Komorn observed, echoing Carr’s sentiment that unless cultivation rights are included in any legalization scheme, the citizen is not truly protected from prosecution.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Beck cautioned, speaking to that those who have advocated for marijuana to be treated like alcohol and tobacco. If marijuana is regulated like alcohol, the opportunity for people to grow at their home could still exist, Beck opined, where citizens would have a “limited number of plants” and you “can’t sell it.”
“Any pro-legalizer… would agree that limited home grow is the way to go.”
“This Michigan Responsibility Council, I think they better wake up and smell the coffee,” Beck lectured later in the broadcast. “If they think they are going to get a totalistic monopoly, that’s wrong. They should be able to make a profit, because that’s their capital at risk for putting this upon the ballot.”
KILLING THE MMMA AND HATING ON PATIENTS
“But why repeal the MMMA?” Carr asked. “That’s what (the MRC) wants to do.”
“To get rid of the competition,” Lowell shot back.
“Tim, you’re not agreeing to that?” Komorn asked.
But he was agreeing to it. Beck surprised the host by justifying the abolition of the medical marijuana laws altogether. “Why have the MMMA if it’s all legal? That’s the fundamental point,” Beck corrected him.
“If it’s all legal like aspirin… or alcohol… why do you have to have a special deal to be a medical user of alcohol?”
Thompson’s objections were heard. “When you’re mentioning the need for us to just ‘destroy the medical program’ when we do a legalization effort… what you’re forgetting about are the pediatric patients. They depend upon a medical system in order to justify use for minors. In a legalization program there is no pediatric scenario.”
He summarized by saying, “By putting in a legalization program that takes away any hope they (children) have of being protected- that’s a fail scenario for most of us, I believe.”
“I agree, ” Chad Carr concurred. “We’d have no real rights.”
At another time Jamie Lowell clarified the concerns felt by many community members. “The MMMA and the ensuing activity has now been here and has been established over a long period of time and there is a certain reliance on that. The idea that it might be taken away in lieu of this other system is the larger issue, not that the idea that people shouldn’t be allowed to get high or that no one is standing up for them.”
“Change is harsh,” Beck decided. “There are winners and losers… Change is tough.”
Beck followed with, “If these entrepreneurs want to step up, create their system, get a monopoly like the casino guys and stuff like that, I really don’t care.”
Beck reiterated his oft-quoted historical perspective on Michigan’s history with medical marijuana. “When I started this crusade, this so-called medical, it was never about medical.” He bragged. ”Medical is just simply a stepping stone in order to soften up the public to accept marijuana as normal.”
He described the medical marijuana patients enrolled in the program as “a special class of people” for whom the coming change “may not be pleasant.”
Beck’s opinion on the nature of protecting the rights of registered medical marijuana patients was expressed early and often. “I do not believe in this special class of special people, just ‘medical patients’ or something like that. It needs to be legal for everybody. Period.”
He later added, “There should be no discrimination. Anyone that wants to use marijuana should have that right. There should be no protected class.”
In evaluating the nature of that ‘protected class,’ commonly known as registered and physician-certified medical marijuana patients, Beck identified himself with one of the MMMA’s most strident opponents.
“I’m a Rick Jones kind of guy,” Beck bragged, referencing Senator Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge). “Rick Jones believes that, out of the entire pool of medical users, maybe 20% are really sick. And the other 80%, well… they don’t need marijuana. They want it and they are willing to pay $200, $300, $400, whatever to be quote unquote ‘legal’.”
TEN HUGE GROWS
Thompson illustrated a point made by Boiter earlier in the program. “One of (our real concerns) is the Mcdonald’s-ization of marijuana… If you have just single large commercial grows you lose the individual care that comes from an individual caregiver growing a strain specifically for a specific patient, or a patient growing a strain specifically for themselves. You lose the ability to experiment and to have varieties.”
Home-based cultivation is an economic source of jobs, taxes and retail opportunity. Taking away home cultivation would “suppress the hydroponics industry which is huge in Michigan… And that (success is) based on supplying a home-based cultivation market.”
Hydroponics stores sell the buckets, fertilizers and lights needed for a person to grow marijuana. “Eliminating the home-base cultivation system would shutter businesses in every county in the state,” Thompson argued. “It would diminish the industry significantly and cause a lot of small businesses that currently exist to go out (of business) in favor of large businesses with reduced opportunities, with reduced employment opportunities, with reduced variety and availability for patients.”
Most of the PGT on-air staff are advocates with a history of marijuana law reform. “The concept of a ten large grows has been around in Michigan for a while,” Thompson reminded listeners. “In 2009 a group of Senators submitted a series of bills that would have proposed a ten grow system across the state… This is not a new concept. We’ve been battling this forever.”
Two of the people that testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2010 against those large grow operations: Rick Thompson and Tim Beck.
Beck’s on-air dialog during the February 2015 broadcast is opposite the position he espoused during that Committee meeting.
“I’m playing devil’s advocate, but then again I’m not,” Beck began. “I categorically reject the concept of Mcdonald’s-ization of marijuana.” Beck did not agree that the monopoly grow corporations would engage in marketing “to appeal to the general public to buy their product” like McDonald’s and Starbucks do.
“They (the MRC) want it to be legal so they can maximize their profit and they can maximize tax revenue and everything else.”
Thompson bristled at the thought of sacrificing patient rights in favor of corporate profit margins. “Law that is derived for corporate advantage as opposed to law that is derived for citizen advantage is the real issue here. Laws should be derived to the best advantage of the citizenry,” he insisted. “When we say things like, ‘Whoever pays the bill gets to decide what’s best for the people,’ that’s a flawed coercion of politics. It’s not something we should endorse or support.”
Boiter’s words were strongly illustrated by the ensuing debate. “What you’ve said is, these guys pay for the petition drive so they get to decide everything. What strains they produce, where they are going to grow… the citizens have zero input. When it comes to what’s best for patients or what’s best for citizens, there’s no corporate responsibility.”
Thompson revisited the comparison between franchise cultivation of marijuana and franchise production of food. “Go to McDonald’s and ask for something that’s not on the menu- you can’t get it. You can’t get a pizza at McDonald’s. I prefer local stores. Local restaurants that provide things that are advantageous to me… With the corporatization of marijuana, with only ten grow facilities in the state, the employment base we see happening in different places for cultivation centers disappears. This is a jobs killer, not a jobs creator.
“This is not advantageous for the citizenry in Michigan. Period.”
TOSSED TO THE WOLVES BY NATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
Beck reiterated a disgust for long-standing organized groups representing citizen interests. “What the ham has MPP and DPA and all of these other big players done for our community?” Beck continued. “Nothing. Period. Michigan? Ohio? We have been written off, we are persona non grata,” adding later that “DPA and MPP have abandoned Michigan. They could give a shinola. Where else are we going to get the money?” Beck asked, rhetorically.
“There are people out there willing to put their capital at risk. To finance a ballot initiative and what do they want? Well, they just want to make a profit.”
He expanded his statement to include, “Entrepreneurs that have money… want to make more money… they want the law changed to benefit them.
“Who else is going to take it to the next level?”
“Whatever means necessary?” Komorn asked, summing up the Beck argument.
“Exactly correct,” he agreed.
He later tried to paint the MRC as a savior to the recreational marijuana user in Michigan. “Who in the ham is coming to our rescue? Who in the ham is going to help just the recreational user?
“Hey is there something wrong with fucking getting high?” he angrily challenged.
“Who is speaking up for the regular recreational user who just wants to get high once in a while? Who the ham is helping them?” he asked himself. “The only people that are really stepping up to the plate is people like the MRC and some players who have deep pockets that want to make some money. I don’t see a damn problem with that. ”
During further questioning, Beck added, “I don’t really care that much what kind of system,” legalization ends up with. “If these rich guys prevail it’s going to modify itself anyway. They’re going to want to maximize their profits, that’s the whole idea. They’re going to compete very vigorously in order to circumvent the so-called illegal market and maximize their own profits.”
How can monopolistic enterprise gain a market advantage? Eliminate the competition, and that includes the MMMA and the black market-dispensary outlets, Beck said. “If somebody got this so-called monopoly their motivation is to maximize profit, they don’t want any money going into the so-called black market they want it going into their pocket… so they can produce the greatest possible profit to maximize revenue to the state and to go to them.” Beck said marijuana should join the ‘sin tax industries’- alcohol, liquor, prostitution, gambling- as examples of legal versions of illegal activities.
The comparison to those regulated industries falls flat when compared to the MRC proposal. “We don’t let hookers decide prostitution laws. We don’t let liquor store owners decide to whom where and how often they can sell alcohol,” Thompson said.
“We don’t let the industry set rules for itself… All the examples you (Beck) cite are of industries where we let outside sources regulate production and control. The reason those outside sources exist is so monopoly is not created.”
Thompson’s opposition to the program invoked a Constitutional reference. “America is a free market economy, we don’t promote the unique expression of corporate greed like that. It’s just anti-American to think that we would have ten large centers that would only be the ones to supply the recreational market.
“It is an inappropriate model that disfavors citizenry. It disfavors the existing system.”
PRESERVING THE HOME GROWS
Caregivers and patients who cultivate at home, but would be excluded from legally doing so by the MRC proposal, would become that black market Beck referred to. Lowell asked about avoiding that.
“Do you think it is significant, or possible, to retain the right and ability to home grow as a part of this?”
“I categorically agree with that,” Beck said. “I think they (the MRC) may be amenable to change as long as they can still maximize their profits. I don’t see the right to grow as being any threat to these people.”
When pressed, Beck said, “I don’t think anyone has yet seen anything in writing, but knowing what I know about these people they are tough players. They are smart people. They got the money and those kind of people are willing to adapt and change in order to maximize their own advantage.
I think ultimately we are going to see will be a right to grow,” he said, then made a promise to the citizenry of Michigan. “If negotiations break down and the MRC decides to say ‘fuck you’ (on growing rights), I’m going to step in. I’ll do whatever I can… I’m going to do everything, whatever I have, to persuade them to go with home grow.”
Beck would rely on his personal connections to the leaders of the MRC to push them to change their proposal. “I know Paul Welday. I know Suzan Mitchell. They personally solicited me, the Mitchells,” Beck revealed. “I told them we don’t have the money. Well, I guess they found the money.”
“I think a lot of the people agree with a lot of the points that you make but the difference would be the threatening of the MMMA itself,” Lowell added. “If that attempt to repeal it is removed, a lot of people on this issue would get shifted to neutral…
“To eliminate the MMMA is the sticking point. I understand that you’re OK with that,” Lowell told Beck, “but that’s kind of where the crux of the issue is.”
Beck explained that the MMMA has to die to dumb down the process in an appeal to the average voter. “The answer to passing this into law is to have a very simplified thing. On a simplified basis, to eliminate the MMMA completely and just make it all legal resonates in the mind of the regular voter who doesn’t use cannabis,” Beck said.
“Their logic, if I am reading into what MRC is doing, they want to simplify it as much as possible, so the average voter that don’t know too much will just vote yes. And then it will all be legal. I think that’s… their logic for eliminating the MMMA is to make it more simple and sellable to the average voter that don’t have any stake in the game.”
THE SB 660 CONNECTION
Eliminating the MMMA in favor of another, newer program is a threat that seemed familiar to Thompson. “That’s the whole logic we were afraid of with Senate Bill 660,” he reminded the listeners. SB 660 was the Pharmaceutical Grade Cannabis Act, passed by the Michigan legislature in 2013 after a whirlwind 3 month Republican-led push through the Senate and House. “We’d have these dual systems and eventually they’ll just drop the medical program in favor of the pharmaceutical grade marijuana program.”
“I think 660 is a hoax,” Beck opined. “It’s based on the feds rescheduling. 660 is horseshit. It’s fucked up. It has no value and means practically nothing.”
“Obviously Prairie Plant Systems spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to get 660 passed,” Thompson countered. “(Lobbyist) Chuck Perricone is still on their payroll. Robin tells me he’s still out there trying to push for a way to modify the bill in order to get it activated now. This is not a horseshit bill. This is a very real problem.”
“I think that… these people at Prairie Plant were being milked,” Beck maintained. “They don’t understand the United States, they don’t understand the law and a parasite like Perricone leeches onto these people to suck money out of it for a useless thing. They were tricked.”
“A lot of grief was taken by the proponents of 660,” Thompson insisted. Those men- former Sens. Randy Richardville and Roger Kahn- faced tough questions over the power grab made by a Canadian marijuana producer on the American market. “In the media, they took kind of a hit reputation wise for pushing it through in three months. That was an awful lot of effort, just to have it mean nothing.”
The conversation ended with Beck reasserting that the entire SB 660 legislative process was a “hoax” and a “cynical gesture” by Lansing lobbyist Perricone.
THE SUPERMAJORITY FACTOR
Lowell challenged the ability to undo the MMMA. “There is a good argument that, however this goes down, it would need to be something that specifically repeals (the MMMA) by ballot initiative or by a 75% vote (from the legislature).”
“The only way we can get to legalization is a ballot initiative for legalization,” Beck insisted. “The legislature is useless. I’ve paid money $250 a pop at (a fundraisers for) Randy Richardville and all these people and we were thinking they were going to do something for us… the legislature, it’s practically hopeless.”
Beck redirected attention to the Michigan monopoly group MRC. “How do we get from point a to point b? The only logical thing is individuals with deep pockets, and generally speaking they want to make more money. They are like investors, if I can use that term. It sounds horrible to some people but that’s what we are looking at.”
Sacrificing patient interests may be necessary for the MRC’s program to move forward, Beck argued. “If some format can be worked out so that people don’t get screwed, those who are used to a current system, that’s the best way possible, but on another level sometimes harsh things happen. There are winners and losers.”
Later, Chad brought a different perspective to the conversation. “It’s important, with legalization, to retain the rights that have been associated with patients and the caregivers. I think it’s important to maintain that, for the people that are going to be protected by any so-called ‘legalization’ scheme.”
“There will be other outstate interests that will try to shape the law to favor them,” Thompson warned, “It’s early in the season. It would be remarkable if no one other than MRC wanted legalization and had the financial resources to pull it off. Before we discuss things like eliminating home cultivation or destroying the MMMA it would behoove everyone to evaluate the breadth of offerings before deciding in which basket they want to put their eggs.”
Later he added, “I think we demonstrated tonight, by the callers and by those of us in the room that predominantly this community does not support the elimination of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act,” Thompson said. “We don’t have to concede this. There is still time.”
Thompson was more direct in his evaluations of the opinions offered- both in a positive and negative way. “I couldn’t disagree with Tim more on a lot of the things he said,” Thompson began. “Part of the problem with the system is the concept that the citizen has no power because he has no financial resource. We see that people with resources are advantaged in the criminal justice system or in the legislature or in the formation of laws.
“It is natural that industry should want to make a profit. It is unnatural for a small group of industrialists to command industry in order to generate an exclusive profit for themselves.”
Thompson said he “applauded” Tim for airing his viewpoint on the broadcast. “He knew he had kind of an unpopular perspective and that he was probably going to get some junk for it. He came on the show anyway and he stuck with us for a very long time. That was a champion move on his part.”
The Planet Green Trees Radio Show program was one of the best shows of the year. “This is why Planet Green Trees is great- there was such a diversity of voices tonight,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of different perspectives in that room. We’re not always speaking with one voice when we talk during the commercial breaks, but oftentimes the conversation on-air doesn’t reflect that. I loved it.”