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Marijuana legalization becomes issue in Democratic race for attorney general

The legalization of marijuana in Michigan is emerging as an issue in the race for the state's next attorney general.

Attorney General candidate Patrick Miles, an Obama-appointed official who served six and a half years as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, has taken a position on legalization of marijuana in Michigan. He said last week, upon further reflection, he’s for it.

Previously, he wouldn’t take a position, saying it’s up to voters to decide. When Miles was U.S. Attorney, he prosecuted people for marijuana violations. Most notably, the Okemos Seven, a group of medical marijuana growers who thought they were complying with the state law and an Obama-era policy. But Miles’ office sent them to federal prison. That prosecution is not sitting well with Michigan marijuana advocates.

Until now, the attorney general race has largely been a battle of resumes.

Conversely, fellow Democratic candidate Dana Nessel, has been very pro-marijuana from the get-go. Attorney Nessel is a hero of the LGBT rights movement for her work to legalize same-sex marriage, although she’s also feuded with elements of her own movement. Last week, she won the endorsement of the group pushing to legalize marijuana in the state.

Until now, the attorney general race has largely been a battle of resumes. But, it appears the issue of marijuana is now on the map as the landscape has changed. Support for legalization is growing.

Ten years ago, 63 percent of voters approved Michigan’s medical marijuana law. In 2014, according to an EPIC-MRA survey, half the state’s voters favored full legalization. That number, according to apoll released just last week, is now up to 61 percent, compared to 35 percent opposed.

The pro-legalization movement is organized and well-funded. Petition signatures have been turned in to put the question of marijuana legalization on the November ballot.

We’ll see next month how big of an issue marijuana is at the state Democratic Convention when delegates will decide who the Democratic nominee for attorney general should be.

In Democratic politics, marijuana is a bit of a proxy for progressive bona fides in a state won two years ago by Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.

And, because nominees for attorney general are decided by convention delegates - not primary voters - both Nessel and Miles need to appeal to the progressive wing of the party.

When you talk to folks in and out of Lansing, most pundits say it’s still a race between Nessel and Miles; that there isn’t a clear front-runner. And, there’s still a month to go before party diehards meet at April’s convention.

Marijuana may or may not be the be all end all deciding factor but, it will help indicate whether in 2018 Michigan Democrats are more a centrist or a progressive party.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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