While last year seemed a good year for cannabis activists and users on the national scene — four more states legalized recreational use and other states legalized medical — there is still plenty to fight about in Michigan and across the nation. Although there are now 28 legal medical marijuana states, we still don't know how a Trump administration in Washington, populated with drug warriors such as attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, will approach the issue. With about 60 percent of Americans supporting legalization, it seems that ramping up the war on drugs would be pretty tough to pull off. On the other hand, the majority of Americans didn't want Donald Trump to be president, and look at what we got.
As we move into 2017, here are six things to think about as you gird yourself for another year of struggle on the cannabis front.
1. One of the biggest scare factors that marijuana prohibitionists use is that legalizing marijuana sends the wrong message to vulnerable young people whose bodies and brains (actually a part of their bodies, but singled out for extra fear factor) are still developing that it's safe to use. It's not clear what message young people are getting regarding marijuana, but it doesn't seem to be drawing them toward the evil weed in droves.
According to federally commissioned national survey data compiled by the University of Michigan (you know, in Ann Arbor, where visitors are issued a bong and a bud when they arrive) marijuana use has dropped among eighth grade and 10th-grade students. Use by 12th-grade students (apparently celebrating their pending liberation from high school) has held steady since 2011.
In Colorado, the first state to sell recreational marijuana, teen use in 2014 and 2015 clocked in below national averages and lower than it was before legalization. In addition, teenagers say that it's harder to get their hands on the bud. Could it be that procuring your marijuana at a store where they check your ID instead of in the neighbor's basement where they don't check anything is a better deterrent than "just say no"?
2. While we're debunking dire predictions about the effect of legalizing marijuana, let's take it to the roads. Prohibitionists also claim that legalizing marijuana will lead to gazillions of stoned drivers bumping into others and killing them on the road. Apparently that's not true. A study from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that states with medical marijuana laws have a lower rate of traffic fatalities, especially among younger drivers. That doesn't necessarily mean that marijuana causes traffic fatalities to go down, but it belies the assertion that it will make traffic fatalities go up. The study's senior writer, Silvia Martins, theorized that the drop could be due to people substituting marijuana for alcohol use and putting fewer drunk drivers on the road.
3. As we merrily march toward legalization, lawyers have a pretty big role. This past year several in Michigan have stood out in chipping away at the constraints on medical and recreational use of marijuana. The most recent judicial victory came through attorney Joshua M. Covert and the Nichols Law Firm in East Lansing, who have won a state appeals court decision on the state's Improper Transport law. Basically those who fear marijuana believe it must be treated like kryptonite and transported in a thick lead container with multiple locks on it and guarded by numerous burly soldiers. Well, our transport statute doesn't go that far, but it does say medical marijuana should be enclosed in a case and in the trunk of the car. If the vehicle has no trunk then it must be locked up and out of the driver's reach. Apparently the goodies are so tempting that if left within reach, the driver would have no self-control and indulge in this stuff while in transit. This totally ignores the fact that anyone could easily set some aside for imbibing while driving regardless of where the lockbox is.
In a 2-1 decision in People v. Latz, the appeals court ruled that the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act "holds authority" over the legislature's rule. In a press release the Nichols firm said: The court's ruling cited the broad protections from prosecution that are afforded to Michigan's medical marijuana patients in the MMMA as its reason for curtailing the use of the Improper Transport law against those patients.
4. Another lawyer who has made a difference is attorney Mike Komorn, whose Komorn Law office is in Farmington Hills. Komorn blew the lid off a scandal in which the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan pressured Michigan Crime Lab scientists to label the THC in infused medical marijuana products as "origin unknown" as part of the state's case against Max Lorincz. This technicality opened patients to prosecution because while medical marijuana is legal, synthetic marijuana is not. By listing the product as "origin unknown," the report left legal patients open to prosecution for possession of an illegal substance. Some scientists resigned from their jobs rather than to make the scientifically untrue classification that could lead to felony charges. Komorn filed a Freedom of Information Act request that uncovered a series of communications detailing prosecutorial influence over the scientific process.
Before Lorincz had his case thrown out, his 6-year-old son was placed in foster care for 18 months. However the state still hasn't changed its policy. Lorincz is one of four plaintiffs in a federal class-action suit claiming that the policy violates due process and Fourth Amendment rights.
5: There is a federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan regarding the mostly forgotten MILegalize petition to put the question of legalization on the state ballot. Various state agencies, including the state Supreme Court, denied the petition, claiming that the signatures were not gathered in a timely fashion and kept it off the ballot this fall. Strangely enough, this opinion hangs heavily on a spring 2016 law enacted nearly a year after the petition drive was registered. A group of signers and circulators of the petition claim that their rights were violated by the refusal. Attorneys Thomas Lavigne of Detroit's Cannabis Counsel and Jeff Frazier of Komorn Law are the principals pursuing this action.
6. Finally, as we swing through the NFL playoffs, it's timely to note that pro football players and former pros are seeking an alternative to highly addictive opioid painkillers and to protect their brains after concussions. All it takes is a few minutes of viewing a football game to know that football is a violent game that results in injury. Marijuana is a banned substance under the NFL's official policy, and agreement with the NFL Players Association even in states where it is legal. A recent ESPN poll shows that nearly two-thirds of active players believe that relaxing that rule will reduce the use of chemical painkillers and addiction. The players association is developing a pain management committee that will explore, among other things, the use of marijuana. Retired players, such as Randy Moss and Jake Plummer, are speaking up in support of its use by players.
In my next Higher Ground column I'll be speaking to some former NFL players, members of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, who are taking part in a pain management study using marijuana extracts from California's Constance Therapeutics.