Local businesspeople iffy on Proposal 1

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA, LAKE COUNTIES — In some circles across the state, Proposal 1 is seen as a cure-all for budget woes facing the state’s roads, schools and local governments.

Local businesses, however, have taken a more cautious approach to the Nov. 6 ballot question, which would allow people who are 21 and older to use, grow and carry marijuana, and for licensed businesses to sell it.

The Mecosta County Chamber of Commerce, which officially stands neutral on the issue, noted that regardless of what voters in Michigan decide, pot would still be illegally under federal law. Farmers say the crop costs too much grow to be economical, and the potential liability of employing someone who smokes pot is troubling.

“From the Chamber’s perspective, we would encourage all businesses to take a look at their employee handbooks and their policies and procedure manuals to make sure that they are updating the information to reflect their new policies,” said Jennifer Heinzman, the executive director of the chamber, in a email.

She added the chamber will host a guest speaker from the Small Business Association of Michigan on the topic after the election, should the proposal pass.

One key provision of the proposal would subject retail sales of marijuana and edibles to a 10 percent state tax, on top of the 6 percent sales tax. Those funds would be dedicated to implementation costs, clinical trials, schools, roads and municipalities where pot businesses are located.

Tax revenue from legalized marijuana has become a key selling point for those in support. A consulting group pushing the proposal, VS Strategies of Colorado, recently published a report claiming marijuana could become an $800-million industry in Michigan by 2024 if voters approve the proposal in November.

“Roads, schools and local governments have been under-funded in Michigan for years,” said Josh Hovey, a spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol group, which is leading the campaign in support of Proposal 1.

“By voting yes on Proposal 1, we will generate hundreds of millions in new revenue for these vital needs and improve our state … We will also save millions of dollars each year by ending the failure of marijuana prohibition.”

Some local farmers say the potential for liabilities stemming from their employees using the drug isn’t worth the tax revenue, though.

Rick Johnson, who operates a cash crop farm in Lake and Osceola counties, said he would hesitate to put someone who smokes pot in charge of dangerous equipment. He added the cost of growing marijuana in Michigan, and the limits on who may sell it to consumers, makes it unfeasible for most farmers.

“You can’t buy a tractor under $200,000 any more. Some of them cost half a million or more. We don’t really want someone high operating a tractor, on the road. The liability for us is immense,” said Johnson, who in addition to farming serves as the chairman of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Licensing Board. “We don’t really need recreational, in my mind, at this point.”

Added Jess Erler, who operates a beef cattle and horse farm in Osceola County: “Farmers already can’t afford for things to go terribly wrong as is. We’re worried enough about alcohol. To put this in the mix is just as bad, to us.”

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