With an initiative known as the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act headed for the November ballot with strong popular support, Michigan is poised to provide a major breakthrough for the medical marijuana movement. If the initiative passes, Michigan would be the first state in the Midwest to approve it and, with 10 million people, it would be the second most populous state to approve it, behind California.
According to MCCC, the initiative would:
- Allow terminally and seriously ill patients who find relief from marijuana to use it with their doctors' approval.
- Protect these seriously ill patients from arrest and prosecution for the simple act of taking their doctor-recommended medicine.
- Permit qualifying patients or their caregivers to cultivate their own marijuana for their medical use, with limits on the amount they could possess.
- Create registry identification cards, so that law enforcement officials could easily tell who was a registered patient, and establish penalties for false statements and fraudulent ID cards.
- Allow patients and their caregivers who are arrested to discuss their medical use in court.
- Continuing certain restrictions on the medical use of marijuana, including prohibitions on public use of marijuana and driving under the influence of marijuana.
"The clock is ticking," said Diane Byrum of Lansing, who heads the MCCC. "We don't anticipate the legislature will take any action. When that doesn't happen, then we are automatically on the ballot."
While Byrum declined to discuss specific campaign tactics for the coming months, she did provide some hints of the arguments proponents would be making. "We will be focusing on the patients this initiative will protect from the fear of arrest or jail for using medical marijuana," she said.
The campaign will also make efforts to reassure voters, she said. "The law is narrow in scope, it deals only with medical marijuana, there is a mandatory state registration system," Byrum went down the list. "The sky won't fall."
While Michigan voters may want some reassurance, medical marijuana is not exactly a brand new issue in the state. Voters in five towns and cities -- Ann Arbor, Detroit, Ferndale, Flint, and Traverse City -- have already approved medical marijuana, and it has been before the legislature for several years.
Rochelle Lampkin, a 49-year-old Detroit resident who uses medical marijuana to alleviate optic neuritis caused by Multiple Sclerosis, doesn't want to wait on the legislature. Although Lampkin is protected by Detroit's medical marijuana law, she said that was not sufficient. "I first spoke out about using medical marijuana when we were trying to get the ordinance passed, but I think this needs to go statewide. There are people suffering all over the state," Lampkin said. "People have a preconceived notion about marijuana, and I was one of them, but if you have enough pain, you'll try anything."
It helps her, she said. "The neuritis causes the nerves in the back of my eye to swell up and they hurt so bad," she said. "The marijuana works. It helps to relax the nerves so the pain subsides. I had to be convinced to try it, but I did, and it works. I don't like smoking it, so I learned how to make a tea out of it. That's what I use."
This isn't about potheads, Lampkin said. "I want people to understand everybody is not out here trying to get high," she said. "I don't get high, I don't smoke, I don't even drink. I was the square," she laughed. "When I did try it, it was because other people in my MS group said they used it and I might want to try it. I fought it, but I eventually did try it and it helps."
As the local pro-medical marijuana votes demonstrated, there is broad support among the Michigan electorate. A recent poll provided further evidence of that support, with 67% of voters saying they supported medical marijuana and 62% voicing approval for this particular initiative.
"This is the baby boomers coming of age," Tom Shields of the Marketing Resource Group, which conducted the Inside Michigan Politics survey, said in a statement on its release last month.
Voters between 34 and 54 showed 75% support for medical marijuana, and 63% of retirees did. Somewhat surprisingly, younger voters (18 to 34) were the least supportive, backing the measure 61% to 36%.
Still, the initiative is in good initial shape with voters, said Shields. "This is where you want to start at for a ballot proposal," Shields said. "You want to start over 60% because when the details come out, you lose support... This is a potential winner."
But there is a long way to go, said Byrum, who will be spending the next few months building and strengthening the campaign. "We're building a grassroots organization. We're asking people to make contributions. This is going to take a lot of work."
So far, at least, there is little sign of any organized opposition, although organizers expect law enforcement to eventually mount objections. One objection already being heard is that medical marijuana would still be illegal under federal law.
As for that argument, Byrum said that would make little difference to Michigan medical marijuana users. "About 99% of drug enforcement cases are done by state law enforcement," she pointed out. "Passage of this initiative will effectively protect 99% of our patients. We can see that by looking at states that already have these laws. They do provide protection."
Each state that joins the roster of medical marijuana states only increases the pressure on the federal government to change its policies, Byrum argued. "We believe that as more states pass their own laws it will apply further pressure to get beyond the political debate that dominates Washington and get to the scientific and medical evidence as a basis for policymaking."
Medical marijuana efforts are ongoing in a number of state legislatures this year. But the legislative process is excruciatingly slow and cumbersome, and it is unclear whether any will make it into law. Initiative campaigns, while expensive, have the benefit of bypassing the politicos and letting the voters choose directly. With high levels of popular support a few months out, it looks as if Michigan may beat the other states out of the gate.