Steven Greene watched through the clear partition of a credit union in Southfield, his smile growing to a grin as a teller counted out $200 in $2 bills.
“That’s a lot of twos — thank you, brother!” said Greene, 45, of South Lyon.
Teller Antonio Pritchard smiled back Tuesday as Greene walked out of the Family Service Center Credit Union, pocketing bills that he hopes will send a message that Michigan’s green economy of marijuana puts green into cash registers.
Starting today, leaders of medical marijuana and cannabis legalization groups in Michigan plan a quirky three-week campaign to demonstrate their economic clout. They want supporters to spend at least one $2 bill for every cash purchase.
“That translates into people saying, ‘Hey, we should get a piece of that, and we should start taxing it, too,’ ” said Greene, a state-registered user of medical marijuana and a caregiver licensed by the state to grow medical marijuana for others.
When $2 bills start popping up, “People will also realize, if you arrest us, you’re taking that same money out of circulation, and you’re spending tax dollars to put us in jail,” said Greene, who hosts the weekly Political Twist Up talk show on medical marijuana and other issues, carried on AM radio stations in Flint and Grand Rapids and on www.politicaltwistup.com.
It’s not the first time $2 bills are being used to highlight a particular group’s spending power. The odd denomination that never caught on for regular use has been harnessed elsewhere to draw attention to groups of spenders — from an embattled steel plant in Utah that in 1989 paid employees in $2 bills to show their value to the local economy; to gun rights bloggers who asked fellow gun owners last year to spend $2 bills at Starbucks branches to protest the coffee chain’s refusal to allow the open carrying of handguns.
In Michigan, with 130,000 registered users of medical marijuana and 30,000 caregivers licensed to grow the drug, cannabis advocates say they hope their economic argument gets traction among those willing to put jobs and the state economy ahead of moral arguments about drug use.
According to a study released this year by several researchers, including one from the prestigious RAND Corp. think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., Americans who use marijuana — both legally and illegally — spend about $30 billion per year just on the drug itself.
“Michigan has slightly over 3% of the U.S. population, so that should mean that Michigan’s marijuana users currently spend about $945 million a year on marijuana,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project.
Harvard researcher Jeffrey Miron found that in 2008 dollars, Michigan could see about $96 million in tax revenue from taxing and regulating marijuana, according to O’Keefe, a native of Grosse Pointe Farms.
About 13% of Michiganders reported using marijuana in the past year, according to annual federal surveys of nationwide drug use.
“We want this $2 drive to spark conversations in chambers of commerce and during business lunches of shop owners,” said Rick Thompson, editor of the Flint-based Compassion Chronicles website. “They’re going to start to realize they shouldn’t just dismiss this big segment of Michigan’s economy.”
Thompson also hopes to reach marijuana opponents who have not been swayed by other arguments for widening access to medical cannabis and to outright legalization of the drug.
“Some people continue to cling to the war on drugs and the morality argument,” he said. “What they don’t realize is that there’s a tremendous investment that the country is making in continuing that war, and it’s completely unproductive. It costs every taxpayer hundreds of dollars a year. We need to turn that money into jobs, into taxes and into productive activity.”
Carol Mastroianni, executive director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition, said she was disappointed to hear of the $2 bill drive. Hers is one of dozens of similar nonprofit community groups throughout southeast Michigan that promote drug-free lifestyles for youth and say legitimizing medical marijuana entices young people into thinking marijuana is harmless.
“To me, the whole medical marijuana thing is not supposed to be about economic clout. It’s supposed to be about health and quality of life,” Mastroianni said.
The campaign launches two days after federal, state and local police executed 25 search warrants Monday as part of a seven-month investigation into a marijuana trafficking ring operating in Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw and Jackson counties. Michigan State Police said Tuesday that officers seized $221,509, 736 marijuana plants, 31 vehicles, 10 recreation vehicles, eight firearms and large quantities of processed marijuana.
Those arrested during Monday’s raids were released pending further investigation and possible charges, according to Michigan State Police.
Medical marijuana user Christeen Landino of Eastpointe said she is delighted to find the portrait of one of her heroes, President Thomas Jefferson, on the $2 bill. Jefferson is from an era when the drug was an accepted part of farming, said Landino, 63, who has been promoting the $2 drive on Facebook.
Jefferson is credited with saying, “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.” Hemp is a plant widely used for thousands of years to make rope, paper, cloth and livestock feed, but it was banned in the U.S. in the 1930s because one variety of the hemp plant produces marijuana.
Jefferson also is thought to have smoked some of his crop, used then to make rope, on the veranda of Monticello, according to websites on early American history. “There’s a lot of quotes that I really like from him, so it’s fitting,” Landino said.
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