Michigan just became the 10th state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. A quarter of Americans live in states where marijuana is legal for adult use. Now, Michigan’s policy leaders must lay the groundwork for a safe and legal market in which consumers can gain access to marijuana products that have been tested to ensure they contain no dangerous chemicals or impurities.
Implementing a state-run regulatory structure and market for marijuana is a difficult and arduous task. There are dozens of important facets to consider, including what substances to test for, whether to allow for deliveries, how the program will overlap with the state’s still-developing medical marijuana program, collaborating with local governments, and more.
Importantly, the voter-approved initiative’s language provides important protections for Michiganians that are stronger than those found in other states. For instance, it allows each individual to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and to grow up to 12 plants at home, which means Michiganians have legal protections for possession in any amount that is reasonable for personal consumption.
Michigan’s new law also grants broad authority for farmers to grow industrial hemp, a non-inebriating form of cannabis whose fibers can be used for cloth, cordage, textiles, paper and many other things. Hemp was a leading American agricultural product in the Midwest before it was rather inadvertently included within the federal ban on marijuana.
The state now has one year to adopt regulations that will help it carry out the new law. A year might sound like a long time, but marijuana regulations in other states often stretch hundreds of pages and Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs will likely need to host dozens of meetings to collect public feedback before proceeding. The initiative provides only cursory guidance on some key policy issues. Many elements of these regulations are highly technical and can range from the software integration requirements for businesses seeking licensees with the state to the specific forms of mold or bacteria for which marijuana must be tested.
Only once the regulatory process is complete will the state be in a position to grant commercial licenses to businesses for things like the operation of dispensaries and grow houses. Fortunately, Michigan can learn from the successes and failures experienced in other states.
Nevada’s market experienced a crisis early on, for instance when an insufficient number of licensed distributors were cleared to transport marijuana products from grow houses to dispensaries, causing shortages and price spikes at dispensaries.
Some states, like Florida, have needlessly restricted the eligibility of applicants interested in entering the marijuana industry. Imposing residency requirements, capital requirements, designating licenses for particular demographic groups or special interests, and other restrictions often end up excluding the most knowledgeable operators, including those who have experience in running compliant marijuana businesses in an industry where every single plant must be tracked from seed to sale.
Similarly, states like Illinois have been plagued by awarding marijuana-related licenses to political insiders instead of granting them based on merit and the applicant’s business experience and qualifications.
The experience in other states shows Michigan should not try to regulate every piece of minutiae in the still infant, rapidly developing cannabis industry. Instead, lawmakers should focus on creating a basic framework that supports a legal cannabis market that is safe, flexible and customer-friendly enough that licensed marijuana businesses are able to compete with and replace black market sellers.
Finally, with marijuana now legal in Michigan, policymakers should recognize the unfairness of previous marijuana-related convictions. People who would not have been convicted under today’s marijuana laws shouldn’t be burdened with those convictions. Expunging them would help workers who are seeking employment and allow for a more productive state economy. California’s 2016 marijuana legalization permitted the removal of many cannabis-related convictions, but there wasn’t a mechanism to do so in the bill. As a result, cities and district attorneys in San Francisco, San Diego and other cities are acting on their own to expunge marijuana possession convictions.
Michigan voters took a great step toward ending the failed war on drugs. Now lawmakers can do their part by creating a safe, vibrant marijuana market.