Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jul 2017
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Copyright: 2017 Detroit Free Press
Author: Bill Laitner


Marijuana ballot campaign's donors include "Big Tobacco," say critics.
But supporters say smoke-store chain in Michigan is not typical donor.

A campaign to once again try to fully legalize marijuana in Michigan
is getting big support from a Washington D.C. nonprofit activist group
and from a tobacco store company that has talked of opening a chain of
marijuana shops in the state.

The donor list, revealed in the latest campaign finance statements
filed by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, alarmed
critics who have long contended that marijuana's nationwide march
toward legalization is being funded not by the idealistic stoners and
medical-marijuana users long linked to the politics of cannabis but
instead by a pack of profit-minded investors and corporate types said
to be similar to Big Tobacco -- the nation's cigarette and cigar industry.

"It's obvious that these tobacco guys are making a play for the
marijuana money," Jeff Zinsmeister, executive vice president of Smart
Alternatives to Marijuana, based in Alexandria, Va., said Friday. The
group argues that Big Marijuana is "following the playbook of Big
Tobacco," hoping to get young people addicted to pot early on, then
keep them as hapless customers for life, Zinsmeister said.

Those who support legalization argue that marijuana will be more
difficult for youths to obtain, not less, after it passes. They liken
the current availability of marijuana to the nation's era of alcohol
Prohibition, when people of any age had ready access to illegal
alcoholic beverages; in contrast to later laws that made alcohol legal
for adults but a crime to provide it to anyone under 21.

The campaign's goal is to put a ballot question before Michigan voters
in 2018, when the governor's race will trigger a big voter turnout.
Medical marijuana use was approved by state voters in 2008.

The top donor to the the current campaign, shown as giving a total of
$150,000 as of June, is a company called Smokers Outlet Management in
Troy, according to the campaign finance statements. The company owns
68 Wild Bill's Tobacco shops across Michigan, its website says. But
its plan is to use the name Oasis Wellness Centers to open a major
chain of marijuana shops in Michigan, according to statements made to
state lawmakers' committees and summarized in a memo filed with the
state House Judiciary Committee in 2015 by the company's vice
president, Paul Weisberger.

Weisberger could not be reached Friday and Saturday.

Additionally, the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project,
which claims to have 32,000 dues-paying members, has given $58,161, as
well as staff time and technical assistance to the campaign, according
to the finance statements. Many of its donations came in brainpower,
listed as consulting, staff time, legal research, hotel expenses and
airline tickets, assistance that has been missing in previous efforts
by Michiganders to get ballot access for marijuana.

So far, the campaign has raised $368,320 in cash, not counting in-kind
contributions of technical and legal assistance. In part, the money
raised will go toward negating the assertions of groups like Smart
Alternatives to Marijuana and their Michigan counterparts, said Josh
Hovey, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

"We're fully expecting there to be an opposition campaign" -- and one
that is equally well-funded, Hovey said.

Support for legalizing marijuana has come from a wide variety of
people and companies, and not always from tobacco sellers, said
Heather Azzi, a lawyer, and senior campaigns counsel for the Marijuana
Policy Project. Azzi flew to Michigan this past year for numerous
meetings as the campaign group was forming early this year, and she
has overseen legal and fund-raising issues in numerous other states.

Across the country, tobacco sellers "have been all over the board. In
some states, they've opposed us. In others, they side with us," Azzi

At meetings in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit in the nine months,
Azzi said she moderated discussions among supporters of how the law
should work, and who might contribute to campaign efforts. Attendees
included: dispensary owners, medical marijuana caregivers and
patients, owners of supporting businesses such as stores selling
vaporizers for those who don't want to inhale marijuana smoke, policy
makers and tax groups, and "not to mention marijuana consumers who
prefer not to be criminalized," she said.

After bills to legalize marijuana were repeatedly shunned by state
lawmakers in each of the last several sessions, four groups tried to
mount petition campaigns last year that would let Michigan voters
decide for themselves. None managed to collect enough signatures
within a controversial 180-day limit decreed by the Michigan Secretary
of State. A big part of Azzi's task in Michigan last fall and early
this year, she said, was to get members of the four groups as well as
other activists from around the state to gather in the same rooms and

"There were probably a dozen points of contention, everything from the
tax rates to how much marijuana a person could grow in their home,"
she said. The coalition members compromised on 12 plants per
household, or six per person, according to the group's website, which also lays out their schedule of taxes that
would make marijuana a moneymaker for state and local tax coffers.

Tim Beck, 65, a retired health insurance executive, said he gladly
spent $250 Thursday night to attend the campaign's latest fund-raiser
at the Polo Fields Golf and Country Club in Ann Arbor.

The event was sold-out at 100 tickets, "and they had sponsors at
$5,000 a pop," Beck said, adding: "I really think we will win -- the
signatures are coming in so fast." Beck, a former Detroiter who
recently retired to a farm in southwest Michigan, is a longtime
supporter of legalization, having helped fund petition drives in
numerous Michigan cities in which voters approved local ordinances
that eased penalties for possessing marijuana or allowed possession of
small amounts.

Based on the ballot campaign's latest report, "44% of our
contributions were $250 or less -- we have a broad range of both large
donors and small," said Hovey, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate
Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Since starting the drive to collect signatures less than two months
ago, the group has gathered more than 100,000 signatures, he said.
That's good progress toward collecting the required 252,523 signatures
-- a figure that, by law, must be 8% of the number of votes cast in
Michigan's last election for governor. The group said it has until
Nov. 22 to gather enough signatures.

And, in order to get a cushion to account for signatures that might be
thrown out, the group has set a goal of gathering 350,000 signatures,
said former state representative Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, who is the
group's political director.

"We're hitting the streets and talking to everybody," Irwin said

In a failed effort last year to get on the ballot, a different
marijuana group relied mainly on volunteers. This year's coalition,
which includes supporters of last year's effort, is using paid
petition circulators at considerable cost.

"It's going to cost probably a million and a half dollars just to get
on the ballot," Hovey said.

"After that, we'll need to spend a lot more on advertising and all the
methods of communication to make sure that voters have the full story.
We're estimating this is going to be, in total, an $8-million
campaign, by the time the vote actually happens next year," he said.