Is the Midwest Ready for Recreational Marijuana?

Voters in Michigan and North Dakota could be the first in the region to legalize the drug. Supporters say passage would "shock the country ... and affect federal change."
by | October 12, 2018
A woman smoking a marijuana joint.
(AP/Alex Brandon)

SPEED READ:

  • Voters in Michigan and North Dakota will decide in November whether to become the first states in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana.
  • 62 percent of Americans support the policy.
  • Michigan Proposal 1 would set up a licensing and taxation system; North Dakota Measure 3 would not.
  • North Dakota's ballot initiative is unique in that it would create a system for automatically expunging some previous marijuana convictions. 
 

Rick Steves is famous for traveling. He hosts "Travel with Rick Steves" on public radio and "Rick Steves' Europe" on public television. He’s authored more travel guides than any reasonable person could possibly need.

But last week, when Steves traveled to Michigan and North Dakota, he wasn’t there to tape a show or write a book. He was stumping for the legalization of recreational marijuana, which is on the November ballot in both states.

"We're not promoting marijuana," Steves says. "We're advocating changing a law that's causing more harm to our society than the drug it's supposed to protect us from."

Steves is on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and in 2012, he helped lead the fight for Initiative 502, which legalized the drug for recreational use in his home state of Washington. Voters have since approved recreational marijuana in seven other states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon -- and one legislature, Vermont's, passed it like any other piece of legislation.

The passage of Michigan’s Proposal 1 and North Dakota’s Measure 3 would be a new frontier for marijuana advocates -- an expansion of legal recreational use into the Midwest.

"This would be a very big victory in that it would be the first time we see states in another geographic area ending marijuana prohibition," says Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.

But advocates will have to overcome opposition campaigns arguing that legalization will make the drug more available to children and endanger public safety if people are driving high. Scott Greenlee, president of the anti-Proposal 1 group Healthy and Productive Michigan, argues these concerns should give voters pause about the marijuana industry.

"There will always be people out there trying to profit," he said on Detroit radio station WDET earlier this month. "There will always be people who say, 'Gee, this weed is so great I should let my little brother have it, or let my neighbor’s kid have it.'"

According to the latest updates on Ballotpedia, groups in favor of legalization in Michigan have raised $1.7 million, while groups against the measure have raised just $286,062. But in North Dakota, the anti-legalization side is winning the campaign funding race. Legalize ND has raised just $28,900, compared to the opposition's $110,000.

Both ballot measures would legalize the drug for people 21 and older while enacting penalties for younger people. Michigan's measure would also limit how much marijuana could be stored in a residence, create a licensing system for marijuana businesses and tax the drug at 10 percent to fund government services like schools and roads. Cities and counties, however, would be allowed to prohibit or restrict pot shops.

North Dakota's measure, meanwhile, mentions nothing about regulation or taxes. It is also unique in that it would expunge some previous marijuana convictions. Last month, California became the first state with an automatic system for reviewing old pot cases with the intention of reducing sentences and dismissing charges for crimes that are no longer illegal.

"This is an issue of personal freedom and criminal justice reform," says Cole Haymond, an adviser to North Dakota’s Legalize ND campaign, which supports Measure 3.

He makes the popular argument that legalization is a means of preventing arrests and incarcerations for nonviolent offenses, thus saving taxpayers money. But Haymond also believes legal marijuana would be a boon to the state’s agriculture industry and cut down on the black market for a drug that 55 million Americans are using whether it's legal or not.

"There isn't some huge reservoir of upstanding citizens who are just waiting in the wings to use marijuana once it becomes legal," says Josh Hovey, a spokesman for Michigan’s Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which backs legalization. "If someone's consuming in the privacy of their own home and not hurting anybody, who's the government to tell them they can't do that?"

But marijuana opponents don’t believe that legalization won’t hurt anybody. Research does suggest legalization could lead to more use, and opponents worry about for-profit businesses marketing the drug to addicts and young people. Supporters are sensitive to this, and many stress the need for governments to regulate advertising to children. Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project notes that every state where recreational use is legal has prohibited marketing to minors, and he expects Michigan and North Dakota to do the same.

"The last thing we want to see in Michigan is a Joe Camel for marijuana," says Hovey.

Legalization advocates have public opinion on their side. A poll this month from the Pew Research Center showed 62 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, including 69 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans. But powerful Republicans in Washington, D.C., aren’t among them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is one of the nation’s most strident marijuana opponents, though he has repeatedly acknowledged the right of states to set their own laws.

Polling suggests the majority supports legalization in Michigan. But in North Dakota, polls have been mixed and limited. If the measure passes there, Haymond believes it would reverberate in the nation’s capital, prompting Congress to take a closer look at the issue.

"It wouldn't just shock the country," he says. "It'd turn the world upside down and affect federal change."

For a full summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer