Students, officials divided on legalization of marijuana in Mich.
Michigan politicians were among the approximately 10,000 people in attendance of this year’s Hash Bash, signifying the push for marijuana legalization in the state.
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D–Ann Arbor) spoke at the event and advocated for the legalization of marijuana, saying it would eventually solve infrastructure issues.
“If we can put a ballot initiative through that will legalize marijuana in Michigan and raise some real tax revenue for this state, we can fix our roads, we can fix our schools, we can make sure that we have infrastructure for the future of this state,” Rabhi said.
Rabhi’s language mirrored that of many other Michigan Democrats, including former State Rep. Jeff Irwin, who was replaced by Rabhi and is now the director of Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. The coalition aims to gain enough signatures to put marijuana legalization on Michigan’s ballot in 2018.
LSA senior Erin Dunne, who wrote her honors thesis on Ann Arbor’s Hash Bash, has dedicated much of her time to legalization efforts. Considering the number of organizations working toward legalization and the beliefs of voters, Dunne said she believes an initiative for legalization would likely pass.
“This year, many of the organizations working towards the same goal are part of the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol,” Dunne said. “The resulting committee is drafting the language of initiative. That committee involves the Marijuana Policy Project, MI Legalize, the Michigan Cannabis Coalition, the National Patients Rights Association, the (American Civil Liberties Union) and the Marijuana Law Section of the state bar of Michigan.”
Despite the large turnout at Hash Bash, many still dissent to legalization. Though the University of Michigan is smoke free, Engineering freshman Lincoln Merrill, publicity chair of the University of Michigan’s chapter of the College Republicans, said legalization would make those who aren’t interested in marijuana vulnerable to its effects.
“Rather than affecting the University area, the new law would affect the student body as they could then freely roam Ann Arbor to smoke with no consequences,” Merrill said. “Legalizing marijuana would expose a lot of people who want nothing to do with the drug to secondhand smoke, but people should have the right to not breathe that secondhand smoke when in public.”
Irwin justifies legalization by discussing the “failure” of the war on drugs, as he wrote in a Facebook post. In 2014 over 20,000 arrests were made in Michigan for marijuana possession, a tally that Rabhi said is too high.
“The war on drugs has failed us,” Rabhi said. “It has cost us too many millions of taxpayers’ dollars locking up the wrong people.”
LSA junior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats agreed and said arrest doesn’t solve the institutional problems associated with crime.
“If Michigan were to legalize marijuana, it would prevent thousands of arrests for petty crimes, and help to end the cycle of disenfranchisement perpetuated by the criminal justice system.”
Additionally, though African Americans comprise only 14 percent of Michigan’s population, 35 percent of marijuana arrests were of African-American individuals. Rabhi said the disproportion is no coincidence.
“I'm here with you because the war on drugs is a race war,” Rabhi said. “It is a war against people of color.”
Merrill argued the enforcement of marijuana as illegal is inappropriately titled a “war” when, in reality, police are simply upholding what has been federally illegal for a long time.
“There is certainly an argument that marijuana is over classified and punishments for its use should not be as harsh, but there is no ‘war on drugs,’ ” Merrill said. “It has been the law for decades, and police simply enforce the law of the land rather than wage war on citizens for their drug use.”
In Michigan, possession of marijuana is penalized as a misdemeanor with a maximum incarceration of one year and/or a maximum fine of $2,000. In Ann Arbor, the marijuana possession is a civil infraction with the first offense warranting a $25 fine. These laws are some of the most lenient in the state, and even among the thousands that attended Hash Bash, only one arrest was made.
However, the University employs state law, not Ann Arbor city law, meaning possession on campus constitutes a misdemeanor. Additionally, the University follows federal law in that medicinal use of marijuana is illegal.
Though many students object to this rule, Merrill said it gives government power where it is relevant.
“Because the University of Michigan is a public institution, it makes complete sense that state law is enforced on campus,” Merrill said. “The rule that marijuana use is punished more harshly when used on campus compared to anywhere else in the city is a fantastic rule that allows the state of Michigan to govern its own university rather than leave such rules up to the city.”
Though Dunne recognized the University is a public institution that must follow federal law, she said the double standard creates a gray area for students and a dangerous situation for medical marijuana users.
“To me, this is not only confusing to navigate, as it is often unclear what is city property and what belongs to the University, but also particularly problematic for students who use medical marijuana,” Dunne said. “For these students, even though they may be legal medical marijuana users, they are unable to use their medicine and live on campus. This exclusion effectively denies them access to the experience of living in the dorms and participating in that community.”
Moving forward, Merrill and Dunne have opposite goals for Michigan’s stance on legalization. While Dunne hopes activism will convince representatives to follow through with initiatives, Merrill said the decisions already made at both the federal and state level uphold what is best for all.
“Those in the state legislature are the ones who have the power to not legalize marijuana and I believe they should do just that, keep the substance illegal,” Merrill said.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has spoken out against legalizing marijuana, even medicinally, agreed marijuana needs to get on the ballot, though he supports a different outcome than Dunne.
“I personally don't think we need to put more drugs in the hands of kids –– families have enough trouble as it is –– but let the people decide,” Schuette said during a taping of "Off The Record" on WKAR-TV.