Despite a recent poll that found 52 percent of Michigan residents remain opposed to legalizing marijuana, approximately a dozen communities throughout the state will try to decriminalize pot this fall.
Lifting the statewide prohibition on marijuana, which has caused no reported overdoses, is largely non-addictive, medicinally treats numerous diseases, and is a pain reliever, could save Michigan taxpayer dollars, and bring the state’s law in line with the will of a majority of its voters.
That option should be up for discussion.
Many communities – including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Lansing, Ferndale, Jackson, Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids and Flint – have already decriminalized possession.
Efforts are underway for ballot initiatives this fall in Oak Park, Hazel Park, Saginaw, Mt. Pleasant, East Lansing, Lapeer, Utica, Port Huron, Clare, Onaway Harrison, and possibly more, according to the Safer Michigan Coalition, which is spearheading some of the efforts.
Nationwide, marijuana prohibition is increasingly losing support. Seventeen states – including Michigan’s neighbor, Ohio – have decriminalized possession of the drug. That typically means offenders serve no prison time for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the offense is treated like a traffic violation.
“In cities throughout Michigan, people are ready to liberalize or repeal marijuana prohibition,” said Matt Abel, executive director for the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Not one of these city efforts has ever failed [in Michigan]. Any marijuana liberalization put to a vote in Michigan has won.”
While some view marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads users to addictive, more harmful drugs, marijuana is also used medicinally as an “exit drug.” It is a less threatening alternative to powerful and addictive drugs currently on the rise in Michigan, and can help opiate users end reliance on the strong drugs.
Overdose deaths from heroin in the state increased from 271 during 1999 to 2002 to 728 from 2010 to 2012, according to state data. But there remain no reported deaths from marijuana overdoses.
In addition to saving lives, decriminalizing pot in Michigan would save the state money spent on police time, prisons, rehabilitation, probation and other budget items, like laboratory drug testing required if possession is a criminal offense. According to an ACLU report, states will spend over $20 billion enforcing marijuana laws over the next six years, if legislation remains as it currently is. That spending could be eliminated or redirected toward arrests for violent crimes.
Additionally, if the drug is regulated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco, the state stands to bring in significant revenue off a new taxable commodity.
Michigan should look to communities that have experimented with decriminalization. In Grand Rapids last year, after three months of decriminalizing the drug, police said there were no significant changes in the number of marijuana cases.
From May through July of 2013, police encountered 266 cases of marijuana use or possession. In 2012, for the same time period, the number was 259 cases. The difference is in 2013, all but 22 were civil infractions.
Legislation was introduced in the Michigan House last year by state Rep. Jeff Irwin to decriminalize marijuana, but it has yet to move through the Legislature.
Organizers are beginning to collect community signatures, but no statewide repeal effort is currently underway. Such an effort would require approximately 250,000 signatures throughout the state, and significant funding, according to Abel. He said many are gearing up for a 2016 proposal.
There’s no doubt sentiments toward marijuana use are changing throughout the country. A comprehensive of Michigan’s policies is in order.
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