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Experts: Marijuana legalization not likely in Michigan

By Tui Rademaker, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 20, 2012

Nowadays there seems to be as many different opinions on marijuana usage as there are nicknames for the drug.

When Colorado and Washington passed controversial measures earlier this month to legalize marijuana, many college students around the country rejoiced at the measures in hope that their states would soon follow suit. However, public opinion polls show America is heavily divided on matters involving the popular street drug, and experts say Michigan legislators are reluctant to make a move on the controversial issue.

National statistics point to a shift in attitudes towards marijuana legalization. According to the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of Americans favored legalization of the drug in 1990, while the latest data collected in 2011 puts that number at 45 percent.

If recreational marijuana usage becomes legal in Michigan, experts agree that it must be done through a ballot petition as opposed to state legislation. Though many states are taking action on the issue, Neil Yashinsky — the Oakland County director of the Michigan Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an organization that advocates for marijuana reform — said it’s far more likely that Michiganders will see more municipalities slowly legalizing the drug as opposed to any sweeping state law.

This local approach was seen most recently in the November election, when five Michigan cities — Grand Rapids, Detroit, Ypsilanti, Kalamazoo and Flint — voted to
decriminalize marijuana in various capacities.

In the city of Ann Arbor, possession of marijuana is decriminalized and punishable with a $25 fine, with no jail or probation. However, University Police enforce state law on campus property. State law regards possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and up to $2,00 in fines.

Most recently, the Committee for a Safer Michigan, a group pushing for legalization, started a petition to put a proposal on the 2012 state ballot to legalize marijuana. Though the group collected 50,000 signatures, it fell short of the about 323,000 required for a ballot proposal.

Thomas Levine, an attorney with Cannabis Council and director of the committee, said the main reason the campaign failed was due to a lack of funds, as opposed to lack of interest.

“I don’t think it was a sign that people were not ready for this — it was just a matter of being able to pay petitioners so we’re going to be revisiting this in 2016 and we’re going to be raising money between now and then,” Levine said.

However, Michael Traugott, a political science and communications professor, pointed out that the unwillingness of voters to amend the state’s constitution in other policy areas in the recent election, in which all six ballot proposals were defeated, may show that voters have trepidation with altering the document.

“I don’t think that given the outcome of the 2012 election, that many people are going to be willing to amend the state constitution to allow the sale of marijuana,” Traugott said.

While some college students have expressed excitement about the possible legalization of the popular drug, Traugott said Michiganders shouldn’t expect to see much progress on the drug’s legalization anytime soon.

“I think the progress on this is going to be very slow given that the federal government still objects to legalizing marijuana for general consumption,” Traugott said.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) also presumed that a more likely path for marijuana legalization is through citizen petition and local initiatives, though he noted it’s an issue he would be willing to discuss within the state Legislature.

“I’m certainly willing to talk about improving our marijuana laws … and willing to bring those ideas to (the) Legislature,” Irwin said. “But do I think there’s going to be a majority of legislatures who are going to support that move in the short term? Probably not … I think by and large politicians … don’t want to take on controversial issues.”

Irwin said he supports legalization because he feels it could lead to a long-term reduction in drug usage as a result of proper regulation and education on the drug, alluding to the success in reduction of smoking in America.

“If you look at cigarettes over the last 30 to 50 years, you now see cigarette use has declined pretty precipitously because of a concerted information campaign … to communicate with people what the dangers are of tobacco use,” he said. “Look at how much more successful that strategy has been in terms of reducing tobacco use than for instance the drug war has been in reducing marijuana use.”

On the federal level, President Barack Obama has previously stated that he has no intention of legalizing the drug. The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy maintains that use of pot is harmful, and that its legalization would increase use, encumber the criminal justice system and fail to increase tax revenue because of higher social costs.

At the heart of some state struggles to legalize marijuana is the constitutional dilemma that would put state law at odds with federal law, making the status of the popular street drug fairly murky. Experts say that until the federal government takes on the controversial issue, states and municipalities will face difficulties in enforcement.

The confusion is rooted in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Raich that ruled that, by the power of the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal officials have the power to enforce federal marijuana laws even if it is considered legal locally.

Public Policy lecturer Craig Ruff said the decision in Gonzales v. Raich has created a headache for prosecutors and law enforcement officials as they try to reconcile the changing local policies with the federal interventions.

“A local policeman in Seattle could avert his or her eyes from seeing someone smoke marijuana on the street, (but) on the other hand there could be a Drug Enforcement Agency official standing right next to the city cop and the DEA official says ‘Oh I’m doing to arrest him,’” Ruff said.

This ability of the federal government to intervene also applies to the Michigan Marijuana Act of 2008, which allows use of the drug for medicinal purposes. Ruff said even with this limited law, state and local officials have found that enforcement and regulation is challenging.

Opinions on marijuana reform are somewhat divided along partisan lines, with 53 percent of Democrats, 30 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of Independents supporting the drug’s legalization, according to the Pew Research Center.

“There is a partisan divide … but it’s also a cultural divide,” Ruff said. “People who are very religious, many of whom live in rural areas … are very concerned that marijuana could lead to poor health behavior and could lead to a person being tempted by other harder drugs.”

Ruff noted there is also divide in support among demographics and geographic areas. Ruff explained that urban areas are generally more favorable to the legalization, partly due to greater exposure to the drug.

“The fact that crime is higher in cities makes a lot of urban residents say ‘Why are we wasting precious law enforcement dollars chasing after people who are, you know, smoking one cigarette a day of marijuana when in fact we have rapists and murderers and robbers on our streets?’” he said.

Yashinsky said opinions in Ann Arbor, East Lansing and other college towns with a high population of youth voters are not representative of the views in other parts of the state, adding that in neighboring Oakland County, elected officials are resisting the Medical Marijuana Act of 2008.

“You’d be surprised if you never made it out here (to Oakland County) and spent your time in Lansing or Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti or Grand Rapids even where you’re used to seeing some dispensaries there’s nothing like that here … I think that’s indicative of the social aspect.” Yashinsky said.

Ruff also pointed to a clear age gap, with the majority of the younger generations supporting legalization and retirees generally opposing it.

Yashinsky said the disproportionate influence older residents have on politicians given their heightened tendency to donate to campaigns contributes to the resistance some politicians have taken to the issue.

“People who get the ear of their congressman are by and large the people that are over 65,” Yashinsky said.

Follow Tui on Twitter at @tui_rademaker.