Illustration by Lee DeVito.
Michiganders are gearing up for a lot of voting about marijuana over the next several months. In August, folks in Hazel Park and Oak Park will be voting on decriminalization of possession and transfer on private property of up to an ounce of the substance for those 21 and older.
In Oak Park, the Safer Oak Park Coalition had to take it to court to force the city to put the question on the ballot, even though the Safer Michigan Coalition had successfully jumped through all the legal hoops to get it on. Oak Park officials tried to use an administrative maneuver to keep it off. They claimed that the ballot language had to be approved by Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office. Schuette is no friend of marijuana decriminalization, and the AG stood mute on the language. Since the AG didn’t speak, Oak Park officials said the question couldn’t go on the ballot. The coalition sued, and an Oakland County Circuit Court ruled that the question must go on the ballot.
But that’s just the beginning. In November, Utica, Lapeer, Port Huron, Onaway, Harrison Township, East Lansing, Clare, Saginaw, Frankfurt, Mount Pleasant, Portage, and Berkley will be voting on essentially the same question — except in Utica, where the issue is a lowest law enforcement priority (LLEP). That means police need to pursue any other crime as a higher priority than a marijuana offense. Utica is the first city in a presumably conservative Macomb County to have such an initiative.
Tim Beck of the Safer Michigan Coalition feels the initiatives will be successful across the board.
“I’d say it’s definite,” he says. “We’ve never lost. These are not radical proposals. The majority of Michigan citizens believe that small-time marijuana should be way down at the bottom of the pile of offenses, and that’s why we’re winning.”
Safer Michigan has a record of successes across the state — Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Flint, Ypsilanti, and Kalamazoo — where decriminalization or LLEP laws have been passed. Ann Arbor decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s. In 2012, five out of five initiatives passed in the November elections.
It’s part of a long-term strategy to change things statewide, even if they have to go city by city. Beck suggests that there will be a few more cities considering new pot initiatives this fall before all is said and done, though he won’t speak publicly about them yet.
“We’ve got this down to a science,” he says. “It’s probably going to be the tipping point for Michigan to become a decriminalized state.”
There’s another angle to this. Many people believe that House Bills 5104 and 4271 will be passed at some time this year by the Michigan Legislature. HB5104 would legalize medibles (edible marijuana-infused products), and HB4271 would allow cities to decide if they want to allow dispensaries to operate within their borders.
“It’s a purely local option as to how the dispensaries will be regulated,” Beck says. “I think it’s going to have a major impact; it’s going to be huge. The effect here is that in these cities, the political class cannot legitimately claim that the citizens are afraid of marijuana” when the question of dispensaries comes up.
This is how you change policy from the bottom up.
If these initiatives are successful, there will be more than 20 cities in Michigan that have flipped on the marijuana question — and many of our biggest cities. Warren, in Macomb County, with some 134,000 residents, is one of the biggest that hasn’t faced an initiative — and there don’t seem to be any current plans to take that place on.
Still, the city-by-city approach in Michigan mirrors the state-by-state approach nationally. There are now 22 legal medical marijuana states, along with the District of Columbia. Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use. Alaskans will vote on legalization this fall. As the tide turns through petition initiatives, legislatures in some states are beginning to smell the cannabis and are starting to scale back prohibition laws without waiting for voters to change things themselves.
It shows how things can radically change. When my father, born in 1915, was 17 years old, marijuana was legal but alcohol wasn’t. Hmmm.
There’s been much hoopla over the passing of an amendment to H.R. 4660, the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act that forbids the Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Justice from using federal funds to go after people operating state-legal medical marijuana or industrial hemp businesses.
I kind of downplayed the importance of this act partly because it still has to be OK’d by the Senate and the president. And who knows what kind of strategies the DEA and DOJ could use to get around the law. DEA chief Michele Leonhart has said that she thinks marijuana should remain a Schedule 1 drug, a classification that says marijuana has no accepted medical use. More sober speculation since the May 30 vote has taken a thoughtfully cautious stance — no more dancing in the streets and throwing foot-long colas in the air.
I’ve seen the high enthusiasm crash in the past when a representative introduced some pro-marijuana legislation that ultimately went nowhere enough times to take it all with a grain of salt. However, I do acknowledge that it was historic that this is the first time since 1937, when the Tax Act made marijuana sales illegal, that a majority of Congress has voted to substantially change federal policy on the subject. Hey, the fact that it even got to a vote was a big deal. Most of these things just melt away in committee.
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