Petition Drive Seeks to Legalize Pot in Michigan

It may be a lot of smoke in the air, but an effort is in the works to try to make it legal for Michigan residents over age 21 to smoke marijuana.

A petition drive is expected to launch this week aimed at asking voters in November amend the state constitution and legalize marijuana.

If enough signatures are collected and the measure were to pass, Michigan would become one of the first states in the nation to abolish criminal penalties for anyone using, growing, selling and delivering what has been a federally controlled substance for decades.

The move also would put Michigan in the forefront of a national movement to end the prohibition on marijuana.

Legalizing marijuana is Michigan’s next frontier, activists say, since the state’s 2008 medical marijuana law is vague and has lead to chaos among patients and medical authorities and police and court officials in the implementation and enforcement of the law.

Proponents for a change contend that many judicial officials have used their authority to limit the law for those who need it. Meanwhile, they add, the state Legislature has not responded to the confusion.

“The medical law is not working,” said Matthew Abel, an attorney who is coordinating the petition campaign. “Rather than try to rebuild that and have more of the same type of problems, we needed to go something broader than that.

“It’s pretty simple: Either you are for keeping marijuana illegal or you are on our side.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette described the petition drive as an attempt to legalize drugs and said he expects most state leaders will fight this attempt.

“Most responsible statewide leaders will oppose the legalization of drugs,” Schuette said. “It doesn’t keep citizens safe and it doesn’t provide paychecks. We are trying to rebuild Michigan and rebuild the economy. This petition doesn’t mean more jobs and it doesn’t keep our communities safe.”

Since Michigan voters approved a law in 2008 authorizing the use of medical marijuana in the state, nearly 130,000 patients have been registered with the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. At the same time, scores of people have been arrested and prosecuted related to the law.

Hundreds of dispensaries opened across the state, and some have been raided for various related violations. Many of the facilities closed last year in the wake of a state Court of Appeals ruling on the law.

Many supporters of the petition drive believe that far too many police and judicial resources have been expended since passage of the medical marijuana law.

Those activists said they initially considered an effort to decriminalize marijuana but decided it would be simpler to just ask voters to legalize the drug.

“It’s clear, honest, straight-up and transparent,” Abel said. “You don’t have to immerse yourself in detail to understand.”

Supporters argue that legalizing marijuana would reduce police and court-related expenditures. They also contend the change would reduce drug-use by minors, cut gang activity and ultimately the state’s prison population, while creating jobs and refocusing police efforts on violent crimes.

“The war on marijuana is a war on Michigan families,” said Charmie Gholson, a spokesman for the legalize marijuana campaign. “It has done nothing to keep marijuana out of our children’s hands. It has increased access. It had decreased the health and public safety of Michigan families, eroded our relationship with law enforcement and skewed police priorities.

“I want the police to go get the people who murdered Nancy Dailey in Royal Oak,” Gholson said, referring to the 80-year-old Royal Oak woman who was murdered in her home in November, “instead of going thru my neighborhood’s garbage looking for pot seeds.”

But opponents — who cite the potential for abuse and other harms — say legalizing marijuana would not be a good for society.

“Young kids will be doing it and affecting their brain,” said Jim Barrett of Royal Oak. “I don’t think it will help anyone with their brain cells.”

While no state has legalized marijuana, a California initiative failed in 2010, gathering 46 percent of the vote. Similar measures will be considered in November in Colorado and Washington.

The drive by the Committee for Safer Michigan will need to collect 322,609 signatures by July 9 to put the question on the November ballot. The group says it has recruited scores of volunteers and still needs to raise funds.

The effort comes as the Michigan Supreme Court is scheduled this week to consider two cases related to the state’s medical marijuana law. Later this month, Wayne State University will host a daylong symposium on the implications of reforming national and state marijuana policies.

The issue of marijuana laws also has touched the presidential race. The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project’s executive director has called President Barack Obama the “worst president in U.S. history regarding medical marijuana.” The organization noted that Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has co-sponsored legislation last year that would allow states to make their own marijuana laws.

Meanwhile, a Gallup Poll in October showed a record high of support — 50 percent — for legalizing marijuana.

“There has always been the sense that this is a wrongheaded policy,” said Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Marijuana has been prohibited since the early 20th century.

Since then, the reform movement launched and 14 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana so that it’s no longer a criminal offense but a civil citation, Riffle said. Besides Michigan, 15 other states and the District of Columbia allow citizens to use marijuana for medical purposes.

During the 1970s, there were concerns the harm of using a substance was outweighed by the punishment.

“More recently, the thinking has been we’re locking up tens of thousands of people for low level drug possession and we’re having no impact on the availability of drugs,” Riffle said. “Rather than spending million of dollars on enforcement and billion of dollars on incarceration, it’s best just to ticket folks and move on.”

Legalizing marijuana for nonmedical purposes is the natural evolution of the marijuana reform movement, proponents say.

It’s not clear if or how state law will trump federal regulations. But supporters are expecting one of the impending state ballot initiatives to pass, and the issue to come to a head since states will want to regulate it, like alcohol and tobacco.

“Our hope is the federal government will not just allow states to go forward with these plans,” Riffle said, “but will affirmatively change federal law to facilitate responsible regulation.”

– Article from The Detroit News.