Greg Schmid is at it again. Last year, the 41-year-old Saginaw attorney spearheaded a petition drive to put the issue of marijuana decriminalization before Michigan voters. That all-volunteer effort gathered only about half of the more than 302,000 valid signatures needed. Schmid knew from the outset that the initial attempt could well fail. But he also realized that the groundwork was being laid for a second try. The new measure, dubbed the Personal Responsibility Amendment and written by Schmid, is both far-reaching and straightforward. If it makes it onto the ballot and is eventually approved by voters, the proposed amendment to the state Constitution will allow Michiganders to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana (up to 3 ounces) for personal use. There is a “compassionate use” provision for medical use, possession and dispensing, and a provision granting the right to farm and manufacture nonintoxicating industrial hemp. Finally, the measure would require that all proceeds from drug, alcohol and gambling forfeitures be directed into education and rehabilitation programs. If passed, the PRA would be more far-reaching than the decriminalization laws in any other state.
In a phone interview last week, Metro Times talked to Schmid about the initiative and why he has devoted so much of his time to the cause.
Metro Times: At a recent drug war conference in Detroit — where the vast majority of people in attendance were opposed to current policies — one of the panelists asked audience members a series of questions to get an idea of their backgrounds. When he asked how many there were Republicans, you were one of only about three people there who raised their hands. What’s a good Republican doing pushing a measure like this?
Greg Schmid: I consider political parties to be like tribes, and this is the tribe I was born into. Other Republicans and I have a lot of hard things to say to each other these days, but I’m not leaving the party of my roots. The way I see it, the party was invaded by the Pat Robertsons of the world in the 1980s, and to a certain extent that has changed the nature of the way the party is perceived. Besides, the Democrats are as bad as Republicans when it comes to this war on drugs. But I think this is a good Republican issue. I say it privatizes the prevention of drug abuse. Private industry can take care of the drug abuse problem, because employers are free to test you, and they are free to hire or fire you. It gets the government out of the picture, which is a good thing, because it is particularly crummy at this.
MT: What are your feelings on drug testing?
Schmid: I personally don’t like drug testing. I think it is dehumanizing. Although I did take a drug test myself when I started this issue, to show that I personally wasn’t a user. I did it so that I wouldn’t be vulnerable to personal attacks. But private industry has a right to do testing, and that is not going to change. I just hope they are sane about it.
MT: What got you interested in this whole issue in the first place?
Schmid: Back in 1986 my father was running for office, and he wanted to take a pro-legalization position. I investigated the issue, and was intrigued by what I found.
Also, as an attorney, I was very interested in what was going on. Hell, when I went to college it was practically a required course to try it. I’ve never denied that. Then, when I got out of law school, I was full of piss and vinegar. I watched and watched as prosecutions increased. I saw how they were going after users instead of dealers, because users are so easy to bust. The effect was that people were being marginalized. Convictions were going on their records. It affects their ability to get a decent job. It affects their ability to get a student loan. And second offenses were being prosecuted as felonies. It’s not a good feeling when you are there as an attorney, standing next to someone who’s just a regular guy who’s going down for this. The whole thing just seemed so counterproductive to me. When you hit society with so hard of a hammer to make individuals act a certain way, you get to the point where the cure is worse than the disease. I came to believe that somebody had to do something about what’s happening, and I was in a position to be that person.
MT: Last time out you fell about 150,000 signatures short of the number needed to make it to the ballot. What makes you think that you will be able to get the 302,000 signatures necessary this time around?
Schmid: The first time we did this, all of our petitioners were novices. They were smart and dedicated, but they were also inexperienced. Now they are smart, dedicated and experienced. They’re still all volunteers, but now they are experts — not just at gathering signatures, but also at teaching other people how to be effective petitioners.
The other thing that is different is the time of year. Last time, we started in January. Because you only have six months to collect the necessary number of signatures, we missed the entire festival season. From that standpoint, we were almost doomed from the beginning. This time we started in April, which means we will be able to collect signatures throughout the whole summer. That’s going to make a big difference. And we have a lot of people working on this. I’d say right now we have in excess of 3,000 petitioners out there gathering signatures.
MT: How is it going so far?
Schmid: Our goal is to get 2,000 signatures a day. We aren’t hitting that yet, but we’ve already collected more than 67,000 signatures. Some months suck, other months are great. But it’s not a straight-line progression. The last time there was anything like this in Michigan, an all-volunteer effort, was the Headlee tax amendment, which I worked on. In that case, 90 percent of the signatures were gathered in the last 30 days.
MT: Where is the money coming from? In some other states, efforts such as this have gotten a lot of help from a few very wealthy proponents. Is that happening here?
Schmid: No.This is an entirely grassroots effort. The biggest donation we received is $1,000. People send in $100 or $50 or $10. But our needs are moderate. We have a good issue that people respond to, and that’s what really counts. Look at what happened with the school voucher issue here in Michigan. Dick DeVos (whose fortune derives from Amway) spent $1.4 million just getting that measure placed on the ballot, and they still ended up losing. On the other hand, we only spent $24,000 last year, and still we got halfway toward getting on the ballot.
MT: How is the public reacting?
Schmid: I think the climate is changing in Michigan. People seem to be more emboldened now, even compared to last year. Before, a lot of people might hesitate before signing. Now, we very rarely find someone who’s paranoid about signing. I think that, as time goes by, more and more people are ready to see the war on drugs end, and they perceive the PRA as a way to begin moving in that direction.
MT: Is the current initiative different from the previous one?
Schmid: Yes. We’ve shortened and simplified the language, to make it easier to understand. Some of the nuance was lost, but it was worth the tradeoff. If you are going to say something, at the end of the day it should be in plain English. And we added the language about the right to farm and manufacture nonintoxicating hemp, because we feel that is a very important economic issue.
The other thing we did was to put the forfeiture provisions right up front. Rather than be a proposition that just addresses an injustice, we thought it was important to provide a positive approach that people could vote for. By saying the gross proceeds from forfeitures will be used to embrace education and treatment, which are the most effective ways to deal with abuse, you are taking a positive approach. That way you take the burden for treatment off the taxpayer, and put it on drug dealers. Also, you take away the incentive for police to make questionable seizures by getting rid of these “collars for dollars” policies that are now in place.
MT: The PRA covers a lot of issues. Did you consider starting off with something more narrow, limiting it to a single issue like medicinal use or production of hemp for industrial use?
Schmid: I thought about that for about five minutes. But I knew early on that this was going to have to be an all-volunteer effort, and for that to be successful we were going to have to have a broad base of support. Being out there in the trenches, gathering signatures, is a lot of hard work. And the only way to get a lot of people involved was to open it up. If it were just to concentrate on medical marijuana, for instance, the people who are most concerned about that are either all very sick or they are taking care of someone who is very sick. So they don’t have a lot of time to volunteer. But by increasing the pool of people to whom PRA directly applies, you increase the pool of people willing to become involved.
MT: Considering the difficulty being encountered just getting something like this on the ballot, do you think there is any realistic expectation the public would actually approve it in a vote?
Schmid: We don’t have the money to pay for scientific polls, obviously. But when radio station WJR did a nonscientific poll asking if people would approve of legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use, 83 percent of the people responding said they would be in favor of that. Also, I think that once people are in the privacy of the voting booth, what’s considered politically correct doesn’t apply. Most people cannot face their own hypocrisy when it’s right there staring them in the face. I truly think there is a silent majority out there that will vote yes if given the chance.
MT: Do you think the initiative, as it is written, could hold up to legal challenges? The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided that California’s voter-approved medical marijuana initiative didn’t shield a so-called “cannabis buyers club” in the city of Oakland from federal laws prohibiting the sale of pot.
Schmid: Actually, I think the ruling in the Oakland case really gave us a boost. That case dealt with third-party providers selling marijuana. The federal government can have jurisdiction in that case because the Constitution grants Congress the authority to regulate commerce. But the PRA doesn’t attempt to decriminalize the selling of marijuana. All it does is allow personal use, with people allowed to grow small amounts not intended for commerce. So the federal laws, relating to mere possession, wouldn’t be constitutional as applied, because there’s no intent to bring it into the stream of commerce. I’ve done about as much work as a guy can do on this, and I am sure I can win on this issue in court if it comes up. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.
MT: What about the other arguments against decriminalization? For example, there’s the argument that something like this will send the wrong message to kids and end up promoting more use among young people.
Schmid: I haven’t heard any argument that stands up to analysis. Like the argument you just pointed out. If you look at the Netherlands, where marijuana has been decriminalized for adult use, the rate of use among kids is about half that of their American counterparts, and they are waiting longer to use it.
For more information or to download petitions, visit www.prayes.com, or call 517-239-9000 anytime.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org