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Activists worry proposed law change will keep pot legalization off ballot

Posted at 4:52 PM, Mar 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-22 16:52:33-04

LANSING, Mich. — Pro-marijuana activists hoping to give voters the final say on whether pot should be legalized in Michigan say their hopes of getting it on the November ballot are fading fast.

Lawmakers in Lansing are moving forward on approving changes to how ballot signatures are collected. A bill already approved by the Michigan Senate is designed to close a loophole giving ballot petitioners the ability to certify signatures collected outside of a six month, or 180 day, window mandated by law.

MiLegalize has been working for months with the hopes of placing a proposal on the ballot to legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana in Michigan.

"It’s a total misalignment of priorities," said Jeffrey Hank, attorney and chairman of MiLegalize. "It’s terrible—DPS, Flint, and you’re dealing with taking away a citizen’s right to petition."

Groups like MiLegalize need roughly 253,000 valid signatures from registered voters in order to have an issue placed on the ballot. Hank said his group began collecting signatures in late June, meaning it's exceeded the state's six month window mandate.

To date, the group has collected roughly 250,000 signatures.

Currently, the law states a signature is "stale and void" if signed more than 180 days before the petition is filed with the state. But a petitioner can challenge the "stale and void" claim.

>> MORE: Read Michigan SB 776

“They’re taking away an essential part of the checks and balances in the system," Hank said. "People don’t understand the burden, what it actually takes to go out and get hundreds and thousands of your neighbors to sign petitions.”

Hank contends grassroots organizations like his are up against corporate lobbying groups with big financial backing, which have the upper hand to mobilize many more volunteers to collect the necessary signatures during the 180-day limit.

“It’s always big money groups, so citizens have a very tough time and they haven’t done something in years," he said. "We have the support of the majority of the state and we’re very close to qualifying for the ballot and their reaction is to try to change the rules.”

The bill is not expected to face much challenge before being signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. If passed, Hank is adamant the new law should not and could not apply retroactively to an ongoing petition. Under existing law, his group plans to make a challenge to count signatures collected outside the 180-day limit are legitimate.

“This is bigger than cannabis legalization or fixing the roads or funding the schools, this is about every Michigan citizen’s right as an American to have a say," Hank said, promising a legal battle against the state if the bill is approved.

Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, who chairs the Senate elections and government reform committee, introduced the bill in February. Despite repeated attempts on Tuesday, Robertson's office did not make him available for comment.