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Republicans eye getting in front of marijuana legalization

Update, Friday, April 27 at 10:40 a.m.:

On Thursday, Michigan Board of Canvassers approved the petition to place the marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot.

House Speaker Tom Leonard says he doesn't foresee the Legislature adopting the measure in the next 40 days. 

"There is not much support it in the caucus," he said. "I do not personally support it, so I think this something that ultimately voters are going to have to decide.”

Original story from Monday, April 23:

Sensing that legalizing marijuana in Michigan might be inevitable, some Republicans want to get in front of the issue to try to avoid political catastrophe in November.

A petition campaign to legalize marijuana in Michigan has cleared a bunch of hurdles. The group pushing the initiative says they have turned in enough signatures to get on the ballot in November.

Recent surveys show that Michiganders are growing more accepting of the idea of legalizing marijuana in the state.

Four years ago an EPIC-MRA poll showed that half the state’s voters favored full legalization. According to a poll last month, that number is now up to 61 percent in favor.

Now, presuming the petition signatures are certified, this question doesn’t actually have to go to the ballot. The Legislature has the option to preempt that step by adopting the initiative and allowing it to become law.

Republicans, some who are even opposed to legalizing marijuana, are starting to reconsider their position. Their concern is if the legalization question is on the ballot in November, it could increase turnout, especially among young progressives and single-issue pro-marijuana voters. And, in an election year that right now isn’t looking great for Republicans, the GOP doesn’t want anything to increase progressive voter turnout.

We’ve seen this playbook used before. Four years ago, it appeared a ballot initiative run by a progressive group to increase the state’s minimum wage might be popular at the polls. That was also an election year. Republicans approved an increase to the state’s minimum wage and kept the question off the ballot.

Now, the Legislature’s GOP leaders say they haven’t really talked about this issue of marijuana legalization yet. The question is still not certified and there are many crosscurrents to address.

The influential Michigan Chamber of Commerce remains opposed to legalization and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled that he’s willing to push harder enforcement of federal marijuana laws regardless of what states do.

Republicans still have some time. The state Bureau of Elections is still checking signatures to see if the pro-marijuana campaign has gathered enough valid signatures.

However, the deadline has passed for the opposition to file challenges. That suggests a clear path for the legalization drive.

If the signatures are certified, the question goes to the ballot unless the Legislature acts first. A political calculation will be part of the deliberations of GOP leaders.

Fight this out on the ballot? Or let it become law and try to hold down the point spread in November that could cost Republicans in competitive races?

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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