Ahead of Hash Bash, University and state policy on marijuana called into question
Hash Bash — an annual April event when pot enthusiasts from Ann Arbor and beyond gather to smoke marijuana and meander around campus — will be on the University of Michigan’s Diag Saturday afternoon. Nationally recognized since 1972, Hash Bash is meant as a rally for the decriminalization of marijuana and a more lenient drug policy nationwide.
Marijuana legalization, long a controversial topic nationwide, has gained steam in recent years as multiple states have chosen to allow the drug either entirely, or for medicinal purposes.
Over the past few decades, studies have shown it has the potential to have powerful medicinal effects on conditions such as severe or chronic pain and cancer. Advocates for the drug also argue that overall prohibition has been ineffective, and doesn’t make sense when compared to how alcohol is regulated.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an organization that argues for reform of marijuana laws, noted that the majority of the American public is currently in support of legalization.
“The Gallup polling of today indicates 58 percent of the population supports legalization,” St. Pierre said. “When NORML was founded in 1970, it was 10 percent.”
According to the University Health System, however, marijuana is not recommended by some medical experts due to the fact it is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and has the ability to impair memory, judgment and coordination. Opponents of the drug argue that the medical impacts of it aren’t yet clear, and could be significantly negative.
In Michigan, medical marijuana is legal, but recreational use is not, despite legislative pushes to legalize it fully. Furthermore, on campus, University policies follow federal law, meaning neither medical nor recreational use is legal — a situation that each year, Hash Bash places in sharp relief.
Balancing the purpose of Hash Bash
Despite likely marijuana consumption at the event, last year’s Hash Bash only resulted in three arrests. This year’s 45th annual Hash Bash will take place on April 2, and, as usual, will be directly on campus.
The University’s Alcohol and Drug Policy states that possession of marijuana on University property is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and possible imprisonment of up to one year.
University Police spokeswoman Diane Brown said the department’s policy is that the event itself is not something UMPD would take action against, but drug consumption is.
“It’s not legal to be smoking or possessing marijuana on the Diag at this event,” Brown said. “It’s exercising of free speech, but at the same time, the University and the police and DPSS don’t condone the use of illegal drugs or the public consumption of alcohol on our campus.”
Brown said in recent years, attendees at Hash Bash have made speeches and rallied for about an hour, and then continued their activities off campus. Once the attendees leave campus, any illegal activities are under the city’s jurisdiction. Currently, marijuana is decriminalized in Ann Arbor, resulting in only a civil infraction and a $30 fine.
“Most of the time, the crowds at this are reasonably well-behaved — it’s just trying to manage and make sure people who look like they’re having considerable difficulty from a medical situation are provided medical treatment,” Brown said.
LSA junior Erin Dunne, who is director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and on the organizing committee for Hash Bash, said the event is crucial for demonstrating political activism on campus.
“It’s important for this to happen on campus because it’s an opportunity for students to both be exposed to political opinions and viewpoints and hear from a lot of speakers from the political activist network, but also the national activist network,” Dunne said “It’s also an opportunity for the community to see that students care about these issues.”
Dunne said the event organizers do not advocate illegal behavior at Hash Bash and notify both the University and the city of Ann Arbor that the event will happen. Police then patrol at their discretion.
She emphasized that despite the potential for people to engage in activities that might violate University policies, the University should allow for student-led events that exercise student speech.
“Hash Bash is considered student speech,” Dunne said. “It’s allowed to happen because of the First Amendment. It is meant to be a political rally and not a marijuana party on the Diag, although there are some people who misunderstand the purpose of the event.”
State policies surrounding marijuana usage
Marijuana — whether used for medical or recreational purposes — is currently legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, each state varies in what amount and type of marijuana is legalized. In Michigan, Proposal 1 dictates recreational marijuana as illegal, though it allows for legal possession of 2.5 usable ounces if used medically. So far, there are nearly 100,000 patients in the state registered for the use of medical marijuana, according to the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program.
Last September, State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) proposed legislation aiming to legalize and tax the private use of marijuana for Michigan residents 21 years and older.
“Prohibition is not working. It’s expensive. It ruins people’s lives, and it distorts the priorities of our law enforcement agencies,” Irwin said in a recent interview with The Michigan Daily.
His bill, House Bill 4877, would make the possession, use and purchase of marijuana legal for adults 21 and older, decriminalizing the use and possession of the substance and providing a system for licensing sellers, much like alcohol regulations. It’s modeled after similar legislation in Colorado, where recreational use is legal.
“If we learned one thing from Colorado, it’s that their system of legalized marijuana is working,” Irwin said.
The bill has drawn opposition from Republican members in the legislature, and a range of groups in the state.
On campus, LSA freshman John Sack, freshman chair for College Republicans, said he does not support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He cited several studies regarding the use of marijuana in Colorado that have pointed to issues with people driving under the influence of marijuana, which could jeopardize safety on the road.
“I think there’s a lot of drawbacks to legalizing marijuana,” Sack said. “While I fully agree with legalizing it medicinally, I think recreational use poses a lot more risks to every person and to society as a whole.”
Though Irwin said he does not see his bill getting passed, given conservative control of both chambers in the state legislature, he has also invested time into the MILegalize campaign, a petition drive to try to legalize cannabis.
Under Michigan law, a petition drive can place a legislative change on the ballot if a group garners enough signatures.
“People on both sides of the political spectrum are realizing that prohibition isn’t working,” Irwin said. “It’s been a huge, huge failure and it’s incredibly costly. People are realizing that marijuana is a more benign substance than even things like alcohol, which are legal and available.”.
St. Pierre echoed Irwin’s statements, also saying there is little merit to arguments suggesting that marijuana use will rise following legalization.
“One out of three youth between the ages of 15 and 24 use marijuana regularly,” St. Pierre said. “If one just takes the fearful argument that there will be an increase in marijuana use, consequently there will probably be a decrease in alcohol use and binge drinking. There will probably be a decrease in tobacco and opioid use.”
Sack, however, disagreed, pointing in particular to issues he said educational institutions could face following a nationwide legalization of marijuana.
“If you look at Holland and Portugal, where they legalized (recreational use of marijuana), and actually Amsterdam, their mayor actually had to go back and ban students from smoking marijuana,” Sack said. “Because they would go into class stoned, grades would drop, productivity would drop.”
St. Pierre also noted that legalizing marijuana could lead to changes in the justice system, pointing to the fact that young Black males are five times more likely to be charged with a marijuana crime than young white males.
“The data doesn’t lie that the arrests, prosecutions and worse, incarcerations, that have to do with marijuana are totally racially disparate,” St. Pierre said.
Enforcement on campus
Even as state and national groups push for recreational legalization, policies on the University’s campus remain completely restrictive — no medicinal or recreational use, and a misdemeanor charge, not a civil infraction, if caught using it.
Brown said because the University receives federal funding as a public university, federal law takes precedence over state law on campus.
“In order to have legal possession of marijuana you have to have a valid medical marijuana card and there are a number of restrictions you have to adhere to,” she said.
One particular area this becomes quickly clear in is University Housing. Because University Housing policies restrict all illegal substances, students who use marijuana for medical issues are not allowed to use marijuana on campus.
Sack said while he doesn’t support full legalization, watching a family member struggle to manage their health issues due to restrictions on medical marijuana at the University led him to support medical legalization, echoing a position other students on campus also expressed.
In response to these kinds of concerns, Brown said she recognized the policy makes it difficult for those with a medical issue to manage their condition, even with a legitimate medical marijuana card, but nonetheless reiterated University policy.
However, several students said they felt that regardless of actual policy, enforcement of University policies surrounding both marijuana and alcohol is not consistent.
An LSA junior, who requested to remain anonymous because of admitting to illegal activity, recalled getting away with openly smoking and drinking in her residence halls.
“My freshman year I lived in Bursley, and there’s nothing else to do in Bursley except smoke weed,” the student said. “I know a lot of people who smoke for (a medical) reason, but they don’t have a card, because they don’t need one here.”
She said her freshman year, she acquired marijuana most often through a mutual friend whose family grew marijuana.
Despite smoking fairly frequently, she said she has never gotten caught for possessing marijuana, and does not know any other students who have gotten caught.
“So many people smoke at this campus,” she said. “Every party you can find shit and get it. Every party that I go to, someone is smoking weed on the back porch. It’s everywhere. Where do people get it? How? I don’t know. It’s just there.”
The future of the legalization of marijuana
Ultimately St. Pierre said he believes there are multiple reasons marijuana prohibition has been kept in place by lawmakers for so long, such as law enforcement opposition and long-term advocacy efforts against it
“(These organizations) waste billions of dollars a year trying to enforce a prohibition the public no longer wants,” St. Pierre said. “If government really, genuinely would like to achieve its stated goal of reducing the amount of marijuana used — notably amongst young people — to make it illegal and propagandize against it the way they have hasn’t achieved any of its stated goals.”
Regardless of the long-term prospects for legalization, however, one thing is clear — this Saturday in Ann Arbor, at least one side of the arguments and controversy surrounding marijuana will be on full display, as it has been for the past 44 first Sundays in April.
That display, organizers said, will hopefully at the least spark some discussion about campus and state policy if nothing else.
“Hash Bash is fundamentally a rally to change laws,” Dunne said. “And get the conversation started about legalization and harm reduction.”
Correction appended: A previous infographic with this article switched states that permit both medicinal and recreational use (Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Washington D.C.) with states that only permit medicinal use (California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Massachussets, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine).