Michigan Cities Challenging Voter-Approved Marijuana Laws

Voters in five Michigan cities passed referendums to reduce penalties for possession of the drug and, in a few cases, make it easier to obtain or grow.
by | January 8, 2013

Political organizers behind easing laws against marijuana use have been quietly cheering since November.

That's when voters in Detroit and four other Michigan cities -- as well as residents of Colorado and Washington state -- passed referendums to reduce penalties for possession of the drug and, in a few cases, make it easier to obtain or grow.

Since then, activists for the change like Matt Abel of Detroit and Tom LaVigne of Grosse Pointe Park, partners in a Detroit law firm, have been relishing last fall's election victories in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti. Now, the two are eyeing fresh political efforts for Mt. Clemens, Jackson, Lansing, Traverse City and more.

But they're also monitoring a rash of challenges to implementing voters' wishes.

"The man is not going down easy," Abel, 53, said Monday, with a laugh -- a slang reference to the war on drugs and specifically to Michigan, where some political leaders and law-enforcement authorities find the voter-passed initiatives impossible to accept.

In Grand Rapids, Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth is expected in court Wednesday to seek a preliminary injunction that would block that city's new ordinance.

In Detroit, elected officials are foot-dragging about whether to implement their decriminalization ordinance.

In Flint, the city's state-appointed emergency manager has declared that Flint's police will ignore the ordinance.

And in Kalamazoo, authorities have said they dare not implement voters' wishes -- to license three dispensaries -- because that would violate state drug laws.

"I think we're seeing the citizens of the largest cities in Michigan trying to send a message to our leaders -- it's time to decriminalize marijuana in our state -- but I don't know if they're getting the message," Abel said.

Sowing confusion

Law enforcement officials and specialists in drug abuse prevention said the new ordinances sow confusion about marijuana.

"It's posing a huge problem because, more and more, you have kids thinking that this is not a risky drug," Judy Rubin, executive director of the Tri-Community Coalition, which counsels youths in Berkley, Huntington Woods and Oak Park.

Officials in Detroit waged a two-year court fight trying to keep the marijuana-decriminalization measure off the ballot.

That opposition was led by Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh. Last month, Pugh said he did not want to see the measure put into effect.

"I don't think we can have a local law that is incongruous with state law," Pugh said. "So, I think our law department has said, 'do nothing,' " he said.

Pugh's reasoning matches the contentions of the city's law department. But that argument was refuted in February 2010 by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ordered the proposal on city ballots, said Tim Beck, 60, of Detroit, a retired health care insurance executive who largely bankrolled the petition drive for the measure.

"The Appeals Court said the city has the right to determine how their law-enforcement resources are allocated -- period," Beck said.

"They can either enforce state law or obey the will of the voters," he said. Beck said he has not heard of anyone arrested for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in Detroit since the election. The Detroit Police Department is "waiting for direction from the city Law Department on this," spokeswoman Sgt. Eren Stephens said.

If someone is arrested for possessing marijuana in Detroit within the scope of the new ordinance, any fines collected would go to the state, said attorney Tim Knowlton of the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn.

"And it would have to be the Wayne County prosecutor handling that, not the city law department anymore," said Knowlton, who successfully represented Beck and other Detroiters in their fight to put the measure on the ballot.

"We've always conceded that the state law didn't go away. But I believe the Wayne County prosecutor would be hard-pressed to prosecute these cases," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office said Thursday that her department had not received any cases from Detroit police that would fall under the new ordinance.

'A very bad message'

With multiple layers of federal, state and local drugs laws, the passage of local measures to ease marijuana bans "is a huge mistake," said state Sen. Rick Jones, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Jones was a leader last year of efforts to reform Michigan's medical marijuana act, and two of the bills he sponsored were signed last week by Gov. Rick Snyder.

"When cities try to legalize small amounts, they send a very bad message to young people. Many times, young people will mix marijuana with alcohol" and then take risks to their health and safety, including driving while intoxicated, said Jones, who is a retired sheriff of Eaton County.

The most vigorous opposition to voters' wishes is in Grand Rapids, where the Kent County prosecutor filed a lawsuit Dec. 6 -- two days before the decriminalization measure was to take effect. The two sides are to be in court Wednesday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said.

Heartwell and three other members of the City Commission endorsed the ballot proposal before the election, he said.

"Far too many of our youth are caught with some small quantity of marijuana and end up with a criminal record," Heartwell said. "And secondly, the cost of law enforcement for marijuana is very high. I'd rather have my police deployed for more serious crime," Heartwell said.

The Kent County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on the lawsuit. The lawsuit asserts that the community will suffer "irreparable harm" if the measure becomes law. The prosecutor is seeking a preliminary injunction to block the ordinance from taking effect while his office challenges it in court.

Beyond that, the county's lawsuit maintains that the measure is unconstitutional under state law. Although Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is not a party to the lawsuit, "the attorney general does support the Kent County prosecutor's effort," Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout said Monday.

A ruling against the City of Grand Rapids, especially if it is affirmed by an appeals court, could put a chilling effect on efforts in other Michigan cities to pass decriminalization measures involving marijuana, some legal experts say.

But the idea of voters challenging the status quo set by lawmakers has a long history in Michigan, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

"In Grand Rapids -- and I'd say the same thing is true in Detroit -- often, the best policy reforms start with the voters," said Dan Korobkin, ACLU staff attorney in Detroit.

"It's not incongruous for the voters of Grand Rapids or Detroit to want to treat marijuana differently than the state or federal government does," said Korobkin, who filed an amicus brief in the Grand Rapids case.

"We're in a time of reduced resources. And so, why shouldn't voters want their police to focus on violent offenders, as opposed to marijuana," he said.

(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press


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