New Michigan Senate committee chair assignments were made public this week, and two strong opponents to marijuana law reform hold key positions of power.
Replacing the term-limited Sen. Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) as Senate Majority Leader will be Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive). Retaining control of the Senate Judiciary Committee is Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), a former county sheriff whose history in the House and Senate is sprinkled with sponsorship of restrictive, medical marijuana-based legislation.
Senate Majority Leader is the most powerful position in the Michigan Senate, as the majority leader determines which bills are considered and to which committee they are assigned for debate.
In January of 2014 HB 4271 and HB 5104, a pair of bills designed to create protections for patients using non-smoked forms of cannabis and to authorize medical marijuana distribution centers, were delivered from the House to the Senate and were initially assigned to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Jones. This was a natural progression for the legislation, since the bills had previously been debated in the House Judiciary Committee under Rep. Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant). Sen. Richardville had both bills re-assigned to his Government Operations Committee for debate, as the majority leader may do.
Sen. Meekhof was a member of that committee. When HB 4271 and HB 5104 were voted on and passed by the Government Operations Committee, Meekhof was the only Senator to vote NO.
The bills never were ratified by the Senate and will have to be re-introduced again in 2015.
Replacing the old majority leader, Sen. Richardville, as the Chair of that powerful Government Operations Committee is the new majority leader, Sen. Meekhof.
HB 4271 AND HB 5104: THE MOVEMENT CONTINUES
The chair positions in several crucial committees may indicate a tough road ahead for any new efforts to pass cannabis law reform legislation during the 2015-16 legislative cycle. Some advocates are still strongly optimistic that HB 4271 and HB 5104 can be passed in 2015, since that legislation has a positive voting record and many of the bills' supporters are returning to their elected positions.
HB 4271 and HB 5104 were voted on three times in the Michigan legislature and were approved each time. One vote came in the House Judiciary Committee, one with a full House floor vote, and the pair of bills won their very last vote- the previously-mentioned Senate Government Operations Committee vote.
A last-day push by state law enforcement agencies moved some Senators from support of the bills to opposition, and both bill sponsors withdrew their bills from consideration instead of having them voted on and defeated. The result came after weeks of high-level negotiations with members of the Senate, the governor's office and key players in Michigan governmental operations.
These extensive workgroup sessions, and the agreements achieved through them, had made advocates optimistic that the bills would be approved this year. The Senate's failure to act took many insiders by surprise.
"This was an unexpected setback," admitted Robin Schneider, Legislative Chairwoman of the National Patients Rights Association (NPRA). "We have commitments to continue forward with our workgroups and to move the bills in 2015. Some of the new Senators coming in already understand the needs of the patients. We've already begun reaching out to them."
The NPRA led the lobbying effort to pass those bills, and has vowed to continue the fight moving forward into the new year. Schneider and their lobbyist, Lansing's Kevin McKinney, will build on the strong relationships they fostered over three years of negotiations with lawmakers to resolve any outstanding issues and make good law, Schneider promised.
"The NPRA is committed to finishing what we started," said Schneider.
NOT ALL BAD
"Senators Shirkey and Horn are two guys coming into the Senate that could be positive for us," said Jamie Lowell of Ypsilanti's 3rd Coast Compassion Center.
Both incoming Senators Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) have served in the House of Representatives and worked with cannabis rights advocates like Cannabis Patients United and Michigan NORML Board member Steven Sharpe.
"Shirkey was one of the co-sponsors of the Irwin decriminalization bill, and he opened up discussions about marijuana laws during a town hall meeting in Grass Lake," Lowell explained. "Horn was involved in the Walsh Bills and... has an open ear to this issue."
During the 2015-16 legislative session, Shirkey will lead two committees: Health Policy and the newly-formed Michigan Competitiveness Committee. Horn will head the Economic Development and International Investment Committee.
The new Senate Majority Floor Leader is Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake). He is the husband of former Rep. Eileen Kowall, who was the primary sponsor of HB 5104 in 2013.