The race is on to legalize marijuana in Michigan in 2016.
At least three groups are working to put the question in front of voters. But money will play a big role in deciding which of those groups actually makes the ballot.
Two of the campaigns appear have financial backing from businesses and industry groups with deep pockets – while the other is relying heavily on small donations and volunteer support.
Chuck Ream is with MILegalize – a group made up largely of activists and pot enthusiasts. He said the group’s first major fundraiser, which was held outside Ann Arbor last week, was a critical moment for the campaign.
He told me before the fundraiser that if it fails, so does the campaign.
“The importance of this is to see whether or not an independent cannabis movement will continue to exist in Michigan,” said Ream.
MILegalize is the most liberal marijuana legalization proposal that has popped up so far. It would allow anyone 21 and over to grow up to 12 plants and adds new protections for medical patients and caregivers.
The group believes it will need to raise at least $500,000 in order to collect enough signatures to put its proposal on the November 2016 ballot.
Just a few months back, Ream told me he did not believe there was enough financial backing to succeed in 2016. But he says one major thing has changed.
“You would call it pure existential threat,” he tells me.
He’s talking about two other campaigns that are now organizing, which are both spearheaded by Republican political operatives from Oakland County. Those groups have not disclosed the names of their financial backers. But they appear to be supported by businesses hoping to capitalize on the new industry that legal marijuana would create in Michigan.
MILegalize supporters charge that those proposals put profits first and fail to provide enough protections for medical patients and caregivers.
“Our whole movement is threatened by the guys who used to say we were bad – the Oakland County Republicans,” said Ream. “Now they want to come in and take all the money for themselves.”
“Legalization is an inevitability here in the state of Michigan,” said marijuana advocate Tim Beck. “The question is what is going to be the model and who’s going to be making the money? Simple as that.”
Beck had long worked alongside Ream and other MILegalize organizers. Ream even calls Beck a “good friend.” But they now find themselves in an adversarial position after Beck joined one of the Republican-led campaigns – the Michigan Responsibility Coalition (MRC).
"Yes, we do have some deep-pocketed investors that are looking to control the wholesale market,” said Beck.
He says he joined MRC because he simply sees it as the group most likely to succeed in legalizing marijuana in 2016. Beck says he does not see that same potential in MILegalize.
“I understand where they’re coming from. But I have serious doubt that they have the financial ability and political expertise to win and see their program through.”
The third group – the Michigan Cannabis Coalition – does not seek to corner the entire wholesale marijuana market. It does allow state lawmakers to establish licensing for commercial marijuana grows. It also leaves it up to the Legislature to set tax rates on retail sales.
Back in Ann Arbor, Chuck Ream tells me after the MILegalize fundraiser that is has been a clear success.
“We’re going to get $60,000 or more tonight,” said Ream. “This has never been accomplished by any independent cannabis movement in the U.S. before.”
Ream says that means now his campaign can hire paid signature gatherers, accelerate signature gathering, and improve the prospects of putting its question on the 2016 ballot.