To legalize marijuana in Michigan or to decriminalize it, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the state to suffer the indignity and second-class citizenship of decriminalization, or to take up arms and fight for full legalization.
The fight over medical marijuana in Michigan is truly Shakespearian, with opposing sides both believing they are right, a menacing federal government hanging in the shadows and ground skirmishes in the foreground.
The most recent salvo was fired by state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who seems to be making medical marijuana his own personal battle. Last week he issued an opinion, in reply to a question from Rep. Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant), asking whether authorities who have arrested a patient or caregiver who is subsequently released must then return the marijuana to the patient or caregiver. Schuette's answer was an emphatic no. That seems to be his answer to anything pertaining to lightening up on marijuana prohibition — no, no, no, and again no. Schuette, while a state appellate court judge in 2008, was a leader of the opposition to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. He lost that battle but apparently feels he can win the war. Someone should tell him that the war on drugs was a losing proposition from the start.
Another instance of his ongoing activism against medical marijuana is his joining a suit by Macomb County's Chesterfield Township to attempt to close down Big Daddy's Chesterfield Hydroponics and Compassion Club. The township wants Circuit Court Judge John Foster to find that Big Daddy's is a public nuisance and have it shut down. Rick "Big Daddy" Ferris, his adult daughter Stephanie Ferris and two others also face charges stemming from a January raid at their now-closed Oak Park facility.
Schuette seems to be trying his hardest to put the marijuana genie back into the bottle. But voters came out for the MMMA decisively at the ballot box and have continued to support it in public opinion polls.
Last week, Kalamazoo voters again made their sentiments clear in a vote on the Lowest Law Enforcement Priority (LLEP) amendment to the Kalamazoo City Charter that would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by an adult the lowest priority for law enforcement to pursue. Schuette claimed that the amendment was illegal and asked Gov. Rick Snyder to reject it during the charter amendment review process because it was a contrary to state law. In spite of Schuette's efforts, the charter amendment was placed on the ballot in Kalamazoo and voters approved it with an overwhelming 65 percent of the vote.
"I'm so proud of the city of Kalamazoo for passing the lowest law enforcement priority charter amendment," says Rick Thompson, of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine and a spokesman for Big Daddy's. "At a time when we've had a long negative public relations campaign against medical marijuana, for one community in the state it means that the conservative side is losing the public relations war even though they have a vast resource advantage over our side."
Kalamazoo attorney John Targowski, a co-writer of the LLEP amendment, was pleased but less effusive.
"The attorney general had an opinion that it wasn't a good idea, but he didn't have any power to stop it," Targowski says. "The city attorney chimed in as well. I think this is part of a broader conversation about allocating government resources. ... People are tired of being dictated to by the government."
They may be tired, but there are others who stand adamantly opposed to marijuana use and aren't ready to budge. Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley had this to say the day after the election: "The charter amendment only has an impact on city ordinances, which we do not have any existing city ordinances relative to the possession or use of marijuana, and we still have every obligation to enforce state and federal laws."
In other words, tough noogies, I'm not listening to you.
That kind of attitude has led to discussions among pro-marijuana activists across the state about getting a citizens initiative on the ballot for next November's election — however, they are split on how far to go and how quickly. Some see the 65 percent of Kalamazoo voters who support the amendment as a sign that the time is right to shoot for full legalization on next year's ballot — a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot approach. Others advise a slower approach that would put the question on a later ballot such as 2016. Some just want voters to add language allowing dispensaries to the MMMA. Others favor decriminalization instead of legalization.
The Kalamazoo result "is good news," says Detroit attorney Matt Abel of the Cannabis Counsel law firm. "It's even more evidence that the citizens of Michigan desire an end to the war on marijuana. We're mindful it is Kalamazoo; it is a college town. Kalamazoo has somewhat of a liberal reputation, but it was an overwhelming show of support. So it's reassuring that the citizens not only want medical marijuana, they want marijuana legal generally. They see that the drug war has failed and this is a really harmful policy and the sooner we change it the better. The debate we're having now is how far to try to change it. There are several competing drives and it could cause them all to fail."
Abel says he is not sure which route to take, but there is certainly a lot of fuel to fire up the arguments. A poll commissioned by Ben Horner, publisher of the monthly Michigan Medical Marijuana Report, found that about 57 percent of Michiganders support decriminalization and about 50 percent support full legalization. That's in line with an October Gallup poll which found that 50 percent of Americans support decriminalization of marijuana, while 46 percent oppose it. That's the highest amount of support for decriminalization since Gallup began polling on the subject in 1969.
Regardless of the goal of a petition initiative, it will be a tight schedule to get it done. Petition initiatives need to gather all of their signatures within six months of the kickoff. To be on the November ballot, petitions are due May 30. That means collecting signatures largely during the winter when it is most difficult. On the other hand, with about 100,000 registered medical marijuana patients in the state, it won't be that hard to get the 258,088 valid signatures needed to put the question on the ballot; if patients gather 10 signatures each, there'd be plenty of margin for error. Figure the rising power of social media, and it seems that this could be a less expensive undertaking than passage of the MMMA, which cost about $1.5 million. But once on the ballot, pro-pot campaigners face a public relations battle with Schuette and others with many resources at hand.
Ultimately, it's a question for voters to answer. So I'm calling the question to readers: Do you think there should be a new petition drive? For decriminalization? For legalization? Please let us know what you think — respond via email or snail mail, or leave a comment with the Web version of this column at metrotimes.com. Let your voice be heard.
My last column discussed former Detroit Police Chief Isaiah "Ike" McKinnon coming out in support of legalizing marijuana. It has since come to my attention that before becoming chief of police here in 2002, Jerry Oliver wrote an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch decrying law enforcement's costly focus on drug crimes. Oliver left office in 2003, in Detroit after he left a loaded gun in his airport luggage. Did Detroit miss a progressive opportunity there?