Rep. Irwin proposes bill to legalize marijuana in Michigan

Monday, September 21, 2015 - 7:58pm

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) introduced legislation Thursday that aims to legalize and tax the private use of marijuana for Michiganders who are 21 and older.

The Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act — House Bill 4877 — would allow Michigan residents to grow a limited amount of marijuana plants in their own homes for their own consumption. Under the legislation, only licensed dispensaries would be able to sell marijuana to the public. Amounts of one ounce or less can be transferred between individuals if no payment is exchanged.

In an interview, Irwin said he sponsored the bill because he sees giving adults the right to make their own decisions is consistent with American values.

“I think we need to let adults make their own choices about what they eat and what they put in their body,” he said.

Currently, it is only legal in Michigan to use marijuana for medical purposes authorized by a physician. In Ann Arbor, marijuana has been decriminalized since 1972, meaning its use is still illegal but the only punishment for first-time offenders is a $25 fine.

Statewide — including on University property, which doesn’t follow city ordinances — marijuana use and possession is a felony.  

Under the bill, the state would impose both Michigan’s 6-percent sales tax as well as an additional 5-percent excise tax on the wholesale market for marijuana. The excise tax would increase by 1 percent each year, capping off at 10 percent after a five-year period.

The revenue from this excise tax — based on comparisons with Colorado, where the wholesale excise tax on non-medicinal marijuana is 15 percent — would total roughly $100 million, according to a Michigan House Democrats press release.

Forty percent of the tax revenue would go toward early childhood education, another 40 percent would go toward Michigan roads and the remaining 20 percent would be used to fund substance-abuse treatment programs.

Irwin said he felt complete prohibition as a method for controlling marijuana use and distribution doesn’t work because it’s too costly to the taxpayers and individuals who are prosecuted.

“There’s both practical and philosophical motivations (to legalize marijuana) — the practical motivation is that prohibition is a colossal, costly failure: It doesn’t accomplish any of its goals, it promotes the black market, it puts money and power in the hands of criminals and it makes (marijuana) more available to young kids.”

He also noted that, based on examples of other states that have legalized marijuana, it is unlikely that doing so in Michigan would impact the amount of people under 21 who use the drug.

“The law has very little impact on what people choose to do,” he said. “If you look at what’s happening in Colorado, teen use is pretty much the same as what it was before legalization.”

However, marijuana legalization bills across the country have drawn opposition from some health professionals.

Carl Karoub, a physician who practices in Royal Oak, said he legalizing marijuana is not a smart decision.

He noted the state has an incredibly high incidence of depression, and legalizing a drug such as marijuana, which can be used to increase endorphins, in a place ripe for substance abuse could be dangerous.

Karoub said while he doesn’t turn to it as his first option, he is not inherently opposed to the use of medical marijuana for certain patients who are, for example, experiencing chronic pain and for whom conventional treatments would not succeed.

He cautioned, though, that marijuana makes people less productive, and that the effects of using it last for extended periods after the fact.

“Marijuana has certain psychiatric and psychological effects that may not end when you stop using marijuana. They may be persistent for days, for months, and sometimes they stay for a lifetime if you used it chronically. If you smoke it, you run the risks of heart disease, high cholesterol, heart attack and loss of brain cells,” he said.

Irwin said he thinks marijuana should be regulated similarly to how alcohol consumption is regulated in the United States because the health risks associated with marijuana are no more harmful than those associated with alcohol.

“This idea that we have legally available alcohol, which is addictive and incredibly intoxicating — and can kill you — yet we strongly punish people who possess and use marijuana, despite the fact that it’s non-toxic, it’s not physically addictive and you can’t overdose on it,” he said. “That’s always struck me as silly.”

There are also several organizations currently working to legalize marijuana in the state through ballot initiative.

If a legalization petition receives 250,000 signatures of Michigan voters, the legislature has 40 days to adopt or reject the proposal. If they reject it, the proposed legislature would then go before the electorate for approval on the 2016 ballot.

Irwin said there are many legislators who support the principles behind his legislation, but that for political reasons, they may be reluctant to jump on board. As a result, he said it is marginally more likely that the issue will be decided through ballot initiative than in the legislature.

Third-year law student Reid Murdoch, the executive director of Law Students for Sensible Drug Policy, echoed Irwin’s sentiment, saying the several ballot initiatives are the real story in the legalization debate.

However, he said Irwin’s bill could potentially add momentum to the debate in Michigan.

“Even if there was political will in the legislature to pass it, it’s probably not going to be a priority,” he said. “The bill being out there — it’s a talking point, it’s a way for people to see it and it’s a way for those who might be more on the fence to understand that it’s going to the legislature as well.”

Murdoch said some of the students involved with his organization on campus volunteer with the ballot initiative MI Legalize to help collect signatures, and added his organization has worked with Irwin in the past.

“This legislation signals that we are trying to treat our young people with more dignity,” he said. “A drug conviction can keep you out of all sorts of professions.”