Could medical marijuana be the issue that brings us all together? I'm not talking about everybody sitting in a circle, passing a joint around and swaying back and forth to Michael Franti tunes — although that wouldn't hurt anything either. I'm talking bipartisan politics. Something almost all politicians talk about but toss into the trash the minute anybody actually tries to get something done.
Rabid partisanship has dogged our political process pretty much since the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. The issue of drugs and marijuana has played into that since Richard Nixon used it successfully as part of his core platform in his 1972 re-election bid. Neither side wants a soft-on-drugs image, but the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has pushed its politicians further on medical marijuana.
"The party that tends to be more responsive on the issue of medical cannabis has been the Democrats," says Alan St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington, D.C. "Democrats, generally speaking, have been more supportive than Republicans. But to get anything done there has to be two to tango. When Republicans do cross the aisle they are generally the libertarian, pro-business types rather than the moral holy rollers. Regarding out-and-out legalization, neither party takes this with any degree of seriousness and urgency."
This is still the case in most instances. And as a Republican administration prepares to take over in Lansing, there is real concern among medical marijuana activists that it will be unfriendly toward their cause. That could happen, but one activist doesn't see it.
"The Democratic Party is pretty solid as far as following the will of the people," says medical marijuana activist Tim Beck. "As far as Republicans are concerned, we've gotten the same signals. For instance James Bolger [a southwest Michigan state representative] is a Rick Snyder Republican. His focus is on the economy; his focus is on jobs. There are also some libertarian Republicans. They know fighting medical marijuana does not need to be a major focus. There isn't going to be a big push to see this overhauled as much as [Oakland County Executive] L. Brooks Patterson and [Oakland County Sheriff] Mike Bouchard would like to see."
Indeed Oakland County has pushed the pedal to the metal in confronting medical marijuana facilities in busting two alleged dispensaries — and indicting 16 people connected to them. While Michigan law allows for medical marijuana patients and caregivers, it does not address distribution outside of the patient-caregiver relationship. Those trials and a suit by the ACLU in support of medical marijuana patients against ordinances that essentially prohibit the use of medical marijuana in Livonia, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills should go a long way in defining what will and won't be allowed in Michigan.
Other than litigation, the only way to further define how the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act works is with a three-quarters majority vote in the state Legislature. Voters passed the MMMA by a 63 percent average across Michigan, but a look at conservative Ottawa County illustrates the act's bipartisan support. In 2008, straight party ticket voters favored Republicans 72 percent to 27 percent, and John McCain won the county with 51 percent of the vote to 37 percent for Obama; yet the MMMA passed 50.55 percent to 49.45 percent.
"The ballot proposition did pass here in Ottawa County," says attorney Dan Martin in interpreting those results. "Support for the law is not a Republican-Democrat split. There had to be a number of Republicans in Ottawa County who voted for it. Otherwise it couldn't have passed in our county."
Martin, an attorney for the Scholten Fant law firm in Grand Haven, addressed a crowd of 100 mostly west Michigan local government representatives at the Allendale Township Hall. Martin played Peter Tosh's reggae classic "Legalize It" and advised the leaders in the audience they could be sued if they ban all medical marijuana. "Lawful uses are permitted," he said.
It's not just the Republican voters who have lightened up about marijuana. Over the years, some heavy national conservatives have come out in support of legalizing marijuana, or at least downsizing the costly drug war, such as Ron Paul and the late William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman.
In a 2004 column in the National Review, Buckley opined:
An estimated 100 million Americans have smoked marijuana at least once, the great majority, abandoning its use after a few highs. But to stop using it does not close off its availability. A Boston commentator observed years ago that it is easier for an 18-year old to get marijuana in Cambridge than to get beer. Vendors who sell beer to minors can forfeit their valuable licenses. It requires less effort for the college student to find marijuana than for a sailor to find a brothel.
Even Sarah Palin, the darling of the conservative right, in June said, "If somebody's going to smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society."
Closer to home, The Detroit News, with its traditionally conservative philosophy, published a column a few weeks ago in which editorial page editor Nolan Finley called for the legalization of marijuana so it could be taxed and regulated. Wrote Finley:
Critics of medical marijuana have called it the first step toward legalizing all pot use. They're right. And it should be.
It's absurd for Michigan to still be arresting and jailing pot growers and users whose only real crime is that they were too stupid to apply for a medical marijuana certificate.
Indeed marijuana has generated a class of Republicans who find something they actually want to tax. Now that's some bipartisan spirit.
Medical marijuana's strongest opponents, most observers would agree, have been law enforcement, some prosecutors, the drug treatment industry and the social conservatives of the Republican Party. Law enforcement faces a major quandary. Most of its members have been trained in a drug war mentality and from their point of view the law is unclear. They don't quite know what to do. Also, law enforcement agencies stand to lose drug war money from the federal government as well as money from property forfeitures if marijuana were legalized.
However, their job is to enforce the law, and when the law is clearly defined there will be only one recourse — follow it.
If support for medical marijuana can bring ideologues from both sides of the aisle together, maybe there is hope for other areas of politics. But then maybe it's just the fact that diseases such as arthritis, cancer and MS don't have political affiliations, and you don't need red or blue lenses to see the relief marijuana can bring.
On the political tip, we should get our representatives together to smoke a couple of fat joints, hold hands and sing "Legalize It."
Peter Tosh was onto something with the lyric "and I will advertise it." Indeed, there is money to be made.