Eastern Michigan University hosted a discussion panel about the impact of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan on the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor communities. About 40 community members attended the event Thursday night, which came less than a week after recreational marijuana sales began in the state. The discussion touched on plans for racial equity in the marijuana industry, new drug testing availabilities for companies and the dangers that can accompany edible marijuana.

The three panelists included Tim Secinski, EMU police department community relations officer, state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and Kevin Boehnke, University of Michigan research investigator in the department of anesthesiology.

Michigan passed Proposal 1 in November 2018, which makes it legal for people age 21 and older to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. Irwin, who served as political director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, which worked to pass Proposal 1, said he does not like the term “recreational” marijuana due to the fact that legalized marijuana can often make its way into the hands of underage consumers. 

“I try to use those terms as much as possible, because I feel like that’s a more fair and accurate way to describe what we’re really talking about here,” Irwin said. “When we talk about it as recreational, which is sort of the term that has caught fire, it creates a certain connotation that is sometimes but not always accurate about how people are using cannabis.”

Though experts say it is nearly impossible to overdose on marijuana, legislators still worry about the effects of the drug.

Irwin and Boehnke said they did not think it was appropriate for a company to drug test its employees to monitor if they are using drugs while at work. They noted that drug tests in the past have only been able to show if marijuana had been used in the past month, not necessarily while they were at work. Irwin said newer and more advanced drug tests are being developed that can detect if marijuana has been used in the immediate time frame or further in the past. 

“So, what I’ve been encouraging employers to do, is to start looking at some of the newer tests that are available,” Irwin said. “You might have heard of some of the roadside swab-tests that are going on across the state of Michigan. I don’t think that these produce data that would be reliable in a court of law, but I think it would be a better tool for our employers to use something that would give them a better read on the recency of use.”

Siecinski disagreed, saying employers administering drug tests was proper and reasonable. He said as a member of the police force, the federal law governs what he does in his free time, rather than state law.

“I would say certainly employers should be able to limit whether or not their employees partake in cannabis,” Siecinski said. “One example is law enforcement. Despite the fact it’s legal in Michigan, it remains illegal federally, so police officers, for example, by federal law, you’re not allowed to possess a firearm and be in possession of a scheduled drug illegally.” 

All three panelists emphasized what they described as the extreme need for research on the effects of marijuana usage. Boehnke said not only is the lack of research harming people, but it is also what created such a fear of the drug in the past decades. 

Irwin agreed, acknowledging that many legislators feel anxious about approving laws regarding its legalization due to a misunderstanding about the drug and its impacts.

“We certainly couldn’t pass it, you know, out of the Michigan legislature,” Irwin said. “We had to go through the vote of the people, because we knew that we wouldn’t get the support in Lansing because, once again, there’s a huge generational divide in this issue, and the people who tend to be in the legislature tend to be a little older and a lot of these people built their career on this sort of ‘tough on crime’ position.” 

In addition to Michigan’s 6 percent sales tax, marijuana sales are subject to a 10 percent excise tax. Irwin pointed out that revenue generated from the taxes would go to schools and local governments and infrastructure.

“However, here’s a part of it that I don’t think many people have even seen, which is that for the first two years of taxation, the state of Michigan is going to generate $20 million for two years for a total of $40 million, which is going to go into research,” Irwin said. 

Irwin also discussed how Michigan has learned from laws passed in Colorado, California and Washington, D.C. 

Allyson Job, a public health graduate student at EMU, said she appreciated the perspective provided by the panelists, but pointed out that all of them were white men. She said that an additional panelist would have helped broaden the range of opinions shared at the event.

“I wish it would have been more representative of the community rather than three Caucasian men. I would like to see a little more diversity,” Job said. “But I did like it, and they answered a lot of questions, and overall, I liked how it was done, and for the first time it was pretty cool.”

During the panel discussion, Irwin noted that communities of color and lower socioeconomic standing are being left out of the new industry being created by this recent legalization. 

“And, you know, given that fact, I think it’s important that communities are careful about equity,” Irwin said. “We’re going to do these things to make sure that we have more equity.”

Irwin also stressed the importance of local communities determining for themselves whether or not to allow sales of marijuana in their cities.

“Make sure that it serves your community’s needs and make sure that you develop it in a way that assuages the concerns of people in your community that are concerned and make sure you pay attention,” Irwin said.

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