Michigan Democrats See Marijuana Vote as Boosting Their Fortunes

By ALICE YIN, Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — As both parties continue pumping funds into the 2018 race, Michigan Democrats hope to cash in on another kind of green.

Josh Hovey, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, speaks at a lectern behind boxes Nov. 20, 2017, at a news conference in Lansing, Michigan, where the group submitted more than 360,000 signatures for a 2018 ballot drive to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Michiganders will vote on recreational marijuana legalization in November 2018. (Associated Press File Photo/David Eggert)

A proposal to legalize cannabis will be on Michigan’s November ballot, putting the state on the cusp of allowing recreational use of the drug for those 21 and older. If approved, Michigan would become the 10th state and the first in the Midwest to allow recreational use.

The ballot measure could also entice to the polls more younger voters, which likely would help the Democrats. And in Michigan’s first general election in two years, the lure of legal weed could be a surprise tool for the minority party to redeem itself in a battleground state that narrowly swung to President Donald Trump in 2016.

One of the ballot’s committee leaders, Jeff Hank, said the initiative is nonpartisan but that Michigan politicians running on anti-marijuana messaging — all of whom are Republicans — should beware.

“It’s the most sensible thing to do,” Hank said. “Politicians who don’t support this proposal are on the wrong side of history, and that’s too bad.”

Having a cannabis-injected voter bump is an easy gift for Michigan Democrats, who by and large support legalizing marijuana as a civil liberty, a criminal justice reform, and a fertile source of tax revenue. It also helps that legalizing marijuana, a once-fringe issue associated with the anti-war counterculture movement, has quickly solidified into a lasting political cause.

Two years ago, the share of Americans living in a state with recreational marijuana laws swelled to almost a quarter of the country, thanks to successful 2016 election ballot initiatives in four states that raised the total to nine states plus the District of Columbia. Thirty-one states have legalized medical marijuana, including Michigan, which has allowed it for a decade.

Legalizing recreational marijuana boasts a 61 percent approval rating among Michiganders, according to EPIC-MRA polling. The partisan breakdown showed three-fourths of both Democrats and independents favor legalization, while just less than half of Republican respondents approve.

“It’s likely to increase participation among young voters, who are very Democratic,” EPIC-MRA president Bernie Porn said.

It’s difficult to draw on successful cannabis ballot initiatives elsewhere because most succeeded in western US states during extraordinary election years. A Brookings Institution study found that 2012 proposals increased liberal and young voter turnout in Colorado and Washington.

Recent events in Lansing suggest that Republicans are worried. In June 2018, the GOP-controlled Legislature found itself in an unenviable bind when it received the certified ballot proposal and had to either vote yes and risk appearing marijuana-cozy or send it to a popular vote in November 2018 and potentially boost Democratic turnout. Ultimately, the lower chamber resisted adopting the legislation, with Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard saying there wasn’t enough support.

But that won’t be the last that Leonard, running to be Michigan’s next attorney general, hears of the cannabis question. Should he get the GOP nomination, his opponent in November 2018, will be one of the loudest marijuana proponents on the state ballot.

Dana Nessel, the Democratic attorney general nominee and a civil-rights lawyer who won the case overturning Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, said she has favored legalizing cannabis for decades, and believes that unwavering support makes her the most-trusted candidate to defend Michigan’s marijuana policy.

Michigan could become the 10th US state, and the first in the Midwest, to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (Associated Press File Photo/Peter Morgan)

“I didn’t believe legalization was important back then just because I put my finger in the air and decided it to be politically popular,” she said. “I ran on it because this was important in Michigan.”

Leonard has said he does not personally support legalizing recreational cannabis, but that he’d uphold whatever law is in place if he’s elected. That’s a message Michigan Republicans running for other offices are giving, and the reason state GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said the party isn’t worried.

Pro-cannabis Republican voters will still show up for GOP candidates who promise to champion the will of the people in this ballot initiative, she said.

“There could be a small net increase for Democrats, but it’s not insurmountable,” Anderson said. “(Marijuana) is a personal issue that won’t necessarily favor one side or another.”

If voters are satisfied with that, perhaps those praying for a cannabis vote to bolster a Democratic reckoning against GOP control in Lansing and Washington are simply blowing smoke. But regardless of whether there will be a liberal “blue wave,” many contend there surely will be a green one.

“Even the most ardent opponents of marijuana legalization say this is coming,” said Porn, the pollster. “There’s no way this isn’t going to take place.”

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