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By:  Dan Cohen – 4/23/15

On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press ran an article, “Could pot solve our budget problems?” Having just returned from a trip to Colorado, where marijuana and bong shops were on Main Street in Breckenridge and the smell of cannabis was unmistakable as we walked out of Coors Field after a Rockies game, I was curious to read the article and see how the arguments for and against legalization stacked up according to the author.

The article identifies three Michigan-based groups pushing ballot proposals. According to the Free Press, the Michigan Cannabis Coalition, based in Pontiac, insists that legalization is not about pot, but about tax revenue and jobs creation. Matt Marsden, the group’s spokesperson is quoted as saying, “We’re leaving it up to the Legislature to decide how to tax this, including the edibles, oils, extracts and anything else associated with marijuana. But whatever it comes to-$150 million or $200 million or $400 million a year- that’s money we don’t have coming into the state of Michigan right now.”

The Free Press mentions another group, the Lansing-based “Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Reform Initiative,” and indicates that group would designate 40% of the tax revenue to the Department of Transportation, 40% to the State school-aid fund and the remaining 20% to local governments. I can already see the campaign potential in “pot for potholes.” The third group mentioned by the Free Press is Farmington Hills-based “Michigan Responsibility Council.” The article reports that this third group would not commit tax revenues to the State at all, but would steer tax revenues to local communities (cities, townships and villages) only.

The Free Press reports that these legalization groups have been watching Colorado very closely, which apparently brought in $8.8 million in January and $9.1 million in February from marijuana-generated by a 10% special sales tax, plus the existing 2.9% state sales tax, along with licensing fees and excise taxes. With nearly double the population of Colorado, the author suggests that Michigan could take in more than $180 million based on similar taxing levels.

While it is clear that tax revenues are the prize, the question should really be: Is the tax revenue worth the costs to society of greater drug abuse. Bill Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, compares marijuana to alcohol, which he says costs society more than $100 billion a year in combined law enforcement and health care. I am concerned about the message legalization sends to school kids, and I tend to share Bennett’s view that it is too early to know what the overall impact has been in Colorado. I am also concerned about kids getting a hold of their parents’ “stash” and how getting high affects personal motivations. In other words, will “stoners” aspire to do nothing and become nothing?   Quite frankly, it is difficult enough for us to compete with China, Japan and India among others, and I bet those societies won’t be legalizing marijuana any time soon.

Moreover, because Michigan’s mental health care system has been gutted in recent years, I question whether we are prepared for the increased substance abuse that is going to occur through legalization. At a minimum, tax proceeds from marijuana would have to go towards building up Michigan’s mental health care system, which will be burdened with the increased substance abuse brought on by legalizing marijuana. Another gift of legalization is the dilemma faced by Colorado regulators with respect to warning labels and consumer education about marijuana edibles, which, according to the Denver Post on April 12, have already resulted in two suicides and one murder.

I just think Michigan legislators and voters need to think this thing through very carefully before plunging into a drug-induced tax fix. The roads can still be repaired if folks in Lansing simply make a decision that will fix the roads with no strings attached. Marijuana tax revenues can wait until the unintended consequences of the Colorado (and Washington) experiments have been studied. If legalization of marijuana is coming to Michigan, let’s make sure it is done right. There will be valuable lessons learned from our friends out West.