Michigan marijuana campaign brings together activists, moneyed investors, tobacco dealers

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The medical marijuana industry is poised to explode with new state regulations and taxes on the dispensaries that will sell the weed.
Kathleen Gray/Detroit Free Press

A campaign to once again try to fully legalize marijuana in Michigan is getting big support from a Washington D.C. nonprofit activist group and from a tobacco store company that has talked of opening a chain of marijuana shops in the state.

The donor list, revealed in the latest campaign finance statements filed by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, alarmed critics who have long contended  that marijuana's nationwide march toward legalization is being funded not by the idealistic stoners and medical-marijuana users long linked to the politics of cannabis but instead by a pack of profit-minded investors and corporate types said to be similar to Big Tobacco — the nation's cigarette and cigar industry.

See the donor list: Michigan campaign statement contributions

"It’s obvious that these tobacco guys are making a play for the marijuana money," Jeff Zinsmeister, executive vice president of Smart Alternatives to Marijuana, based in Alexandria, Va., said Friday. The group argues that Big Marijuana is "following the playbook of Big Tobacco," hoping to get young people addicted to pot early on, then keep them as hapless customers for life, Zinsmeister said.

Those who support legalization argue that marijuana will be more difficult for youths to obtain, not less, after it passes. They liken the current availability of marijuana to the nation's era of alcohol Prohibition, when people of any age had ready access to illegal alcoholic beverages; in contrast to later laws that made alcohol legal for adults but a crime to provide it to anyone under 21.

The campaign's goal is to put a ballot question before Michigan voters in 2018, when the governor's race will trigger a big voter turnout. Medical marijuana use was approved by state voters in 2008.

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The top donor to the the current campaign, shown as giving a total of $150,000 as of June, is a company called Smokers Outlet Management in Troy, according to the campaign finance statements.  The company owns 68 Wild Bill's Tobacco shops across Michigan, its website says. But its plan is to use the name Oasis Wellness Centers to open a major chain of marijuana shops in Michigan, according to statements made to state lawmakers' committees and summarized in a memo filed with the state House Judiciary Committee in 2015 by the company's vice president, Paul Weisberger.

Weisberger could not be reached Friday and Saturday. 

Additionally, the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which claims to have 32,000 dues-paying members,  has given $58,161, as well as staff time and technical assistance to the campaign,  according to the finance statements. Many of its donations came in brainpower, listed as consulting, staff time, legal research, hotel expenses and airline tickets, assistance that has been missing in previous efforts by Michiganders to get ballot access for marijuana.

So far, the campaign has raised $368,320 in cash, not counting in-kind contributions of technical and legal assistance. In part, the money raised will go toward negating the assertions of groups like Smart Alternatives to Marijuana and their Michigan counterparts, said Josh Hovey, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

“We’re fully expecting there to be an opposition campaign" — and one that is equally well-funded, Hovey said.

Support for legalizing marijuana has come from a wide variety of people and companies, and not always from tobacco sellers, said Heather Azzi, a lawyer, and senior campaigns counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project. Azzi flew to Michigan this past year for numerous meetings as the campaign group was forming early this year, and she has overseen legal and fund-raising issues in numerous other states.

Across the country, tobacco sellers “have been all over the board. In some states, they’ve opposed us. In others, they side with us," Azzi said.

At meetings in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit in the nine months,  Azzi said she moderated discussions among supporters of how the law should work, and who might contribute to campaign efforts. Attendees included: dispensary owners, medical marijuana caregivers and patients, owners of supporting businesses such as stores selling vaporizers for those who don't want to inhale marijuana smoke, policy makers and tax groups, and "not to mention marijuana consumers who prefer not to be criminalized," she said.

After bills to legalize marijuana were repeatedly shunned by state lawmakers in each of the last several sessions, four groups tried to mount petition campaigns last year that would let Michigan voters decide for themselves. None managed to collect enough signatures within a controversial 180-day limit decreed by the Michigan Secretary of State. A big part of Azzi's task in Michigan last fall and early this year, she said, was to get members of the four groups as well as other activists from around the state to gather in the same rooms and compromise.

"There were probably a dozen points of contention, everything from the tax rates to how much marijuana a person could grow in their home," she said. The coalition members compromised on 12 plants per household, or six per person, according to the group's website www.regulatemi.org, which also lays out their schedule of taxes that would make marijuana a moneymaker for state and local tax coffers.

Tim Beck, 65, a retired health insurance executive, said he gladly spent $250 Thursday night to attend the campaign's latest fund-raiser at the Polo Fields Golf and Country Club in Ann Arbor.

The event was sold-out at 100 tickets, "and they had sponsors at $5,000 a pop," Beck said, adding: "I really think we will win — the signatures are coming in so fast."  Beck, a former Detroiter who recently retired to a farm in southwest Michigan, is a longtime supporter of legalization, having helped fund petition drives in numerous Michigan cities in which voters approved local ordinances that eased penalties for possessing marijuana or allowed possession of small amounts.

Based on the ballot campaign's latest report, "44% of our contributions were $250 or less — we have a broad range of both large donors and small," said Hovey, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Since starting the drive to collect signatures less than two months ago, the group has gathered more than 100,000 signatures, he said. That's good progress toward collecting the required 252,523 signatures — a figure that, by law, must be 8% of the number of votes cast in Michigan's last election for governor. The group said it has until  Nov. 22 to gather enough signatures.

And, in order to get a cushion to account for signatures that might be thrown out, the group has set a goal of gathering 350,000 signatures, said former state representative Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, who is the group's political director.

"We're hitting the streets and talking to everybody," Irwin said Saturday.

In a failed effort last year to get on the ballot, a different marijuana group relied mainly on volunteers. This year's coalition, which includes supporters of last year's effort, is using paid petition circulators at considerable cost.

"It's going to cost probably a million and a half dollars just to get on the ballot," Hovey said.

"After that, we’ll need to spend a lot more on advertising and all the methods of communication to make sure that voters have the full story. We’re estimating this is going to be, in total, an $8-million campaign, by the time the vote actually happens next year," he said.

Contact Bill Laitner: blaitner@freepress.com

Top 6 Donors to the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol:

1.) Smokers Outlet (chain of 68 Wild Bill's Tobacco shops), Troy, $150,000

2.) Marijuana Policy Project (nonprofit with 32,000 members), Wash, D.C., $58,161 

3.) Andrew Driver Jr. (with Advance Electric), Gaylord, $35,000

4.) David Kelley (investment banker), Traverse City, $10,000

5.) Alec Riffle (with Tree City Health Collective dispensary), Ann Arbor, $10,000

6.) Wholesale Hydroponics (store for marijuana growers), Lansing, $10,000

Source: Secretary of State Michigan Campaign Finance reports, June 2017

 

 

 

 

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