By Ben Atlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 13, 2013
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) is drafting legislation that would make marijuana possession a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor. Decriminalization is already on the books in cities such as Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Traverse City. The bill aims to expand the policy statewide, and Irwin hopes to introduce it in the next several months.
In Ann Arbor, a civil infraction for marijuana possession results in a $25 fine, according to the city charter. In cities where possession is considered a misdemeanor, offenders face much more serious consequences.
A 2010 Harvard University publication estimated that the state of Michigan spends approximately $1 billion enforcing marijuana laws annually.
Irwin said he would eventually like the state to move toward legalizing marijuana — classified as a Schedule I controlled substance federally — and regulating the market. He believes decriminalization is a logical first step toward achieving that goal.
He added that marijuana prohibition has failed, much like alcohol prohibition did in the early 20th century.
He said bringing pot out of the black market would alleviate problems for government and consumers.
“When you make something illegal and attach very large penalties to it, it drives all of the trade into the shadows — into the black market where criminal gangs and violent individuals get the lion’s share of the benefit and run the show,” Irwin said.
Despite potential health risks, Irwin argues that legalization of things like alcohol and marijuana is not an endorsement to use it.
To Irwin, taxes and restrictions on alcohol are an indication of the government’s desire to lessen negative impacts, and he believes the same should be true for marijuana.
LSA senior Nick Zettell, outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said he believes statewide decriminalization would be “a positive step forward.”
“I definitely think with the state of the overcrowding in the prison systems, it would do a lot of good to alleviate the pressures and tensions within the criminal justice system and expedite the process for a lot of people facing charges,” he said.
Irwin’s legislation faces some opposition from members of the legislative and executive branches.
Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Bill Schuette, wrote in an email statement that the Attorney General Schuette opposes efforts to legalize drugs.
“Creating a marijuana free-for-all would undermine public safety and endanger our children,” Yearout wrote.
Irwin cited that public opinion in favor of reforming and improving marijuana laws has exceeded 50 percent. His bill could appeal to Republicans who emphasize smaller government and reducing wasteful expenditures.
The decriminalization of marijuana could save local and state government “hundreds of millions of dollars” in police, judicial and corrections costs, Irwin said. He said he would like to see money saved through decriminalization go toward budget priorities, such as education.
“I think this issue is important enough that our political leaders really ought to put aside the potential controversy of it,” Irwin said. “I think we’re going to find out that decriminalizing marijuana is an excellent first step that will make our kids safer, take a whole lot of money and energy out of the hands of violent criminals and (will allow us) to put more energy in the issues that we should be focusing on, including education, making college more accessible and affordable, and improving our roads.”