Voters in three separate Michigan communities will decide Tuesday whether local police should arrest recreational marijuana users. Ballot proposals in Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale would legalize the use or possession of up to an ounce of marijuana on private property by anyone 21 years or older. Organizers are predicting success in all three cities and hope ballot box victories will spur state lawmakers to act on bipartisan legislation that would decriminalize marijuana in Michigan, where small-time possession remains illegal under state law.
“This is going to send a message to the Legislature that people really want change,” said Tim Beck of Detroit, who spearheaded Michigan’s 2008 medical marijuana ballot proposal before guiding legalization and decriminalization initiatives in several cities. “The best poll you’re ever going to find is an election. You cannot question the result.”
Voters in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint and Ypsilanti, along with the Kalamazoo City Commission, have moved to decriminalize or legalize small-time marijuana possession in recent years, joining the city of Ann Arbor, where police have issued tickets rather than make arrests since the 1970s.
The Lansing proposal is somewhat unique, in that it would amend the city charter rather than update an ordinance, but is otherwise identical to initiatives in Jackson and Ferndale. While the measures have been called “decriminalization” proposals, they would not result in fines for marijuana use like rules in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office weighed in on the Lansing proposal in September, arguing that it “is not consistent” with the state’s Home Rules Cities Act.
“Regardless of whether the proposed amendment is approved by the voters, marijuana will remain a controlled substance under state and federal law,” wrote Matthew Schneider, the attorney general’s chief legal counsel. “City law enforcement will retain the authority to enforce criminal laws, without regard to any provision in the charter.”
Gov. Rick Snyder told city officials that he agreed with the attorney general’s opinion, but activists say the state does not have veto power on charter amendments approved by ballot initiative.
If the ballot measures are approved, local law enforcement officers would retain the ability to arrest marijuana users under state law, but any fines or forfeiture revenue would go to the state. Ultimately, elected officials in Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale would be expected to direct police on how to proceed if voters ask them to end marijuana arrests.
“There are other crimes out there that are screaming for police attention,” said Beck, whose statewide umbrella group calls itself the “Safer Michigan Coalition.”
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who is a favorite to win re-election Tuesday, has called marijuana prohibition “a complete failure” and endorsed the local proposal. Mayoral candidates set to appear on ballots in Jackson and Ferndale have offered mixed opinions, along with law enforcement officials.
Michigan activists targeted specific cities this year, in part, due to their symbolic value. Lansing is the state Capitol; Jackson claims to be the “birthplace” of the Republican party but is known for its libertarian streak; and Ferndale is in Oakland County, where the prosecutor and sheriff have taken a hard line on medical marijuana.
Beck, anticipating success in all three cities, hopes that Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature will note the symbolism. If they do not take up a decriminalization bill introduced earlier this year, he suggested activists may pursue outright legalization via a statewide ballot proposal in 2016.
“We hope these are the last ones we have to do,” Beck said of the local proposals. “We hope between now and the end of the session that we will have decriminalization like 17 other states. This is nothing radical.”
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