As of 2017, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of cannabis. While Michigan is one of the 29 states with a medical cannabis program, there is no question that our state can improve when it comes to legislating drug policies. 

We, as members of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the University of Michigan, believe the most logical step to address public health and criminal justice concerns surrounding cannabis is to reconsider current legislation surrounding its recreational and medical uses.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the city of Ann Arbor has been home to one of the most progressive cannabis laws in the country. In contrast with the Nixon administration’s aggressive drug enforcement policy, Ann Arbor recognized the innocuous connotations associated with cannabis use. City Council reasoned that a cannabis infraction should be seen as no different than a parking violation. 

Ann Arbor’s enforcement of cannabis violations has ebbed and flowed since first decriminalization. Decriminalization still remains the local law, while this does not affect state or federal jurisdiction. A recent article published in The Michigan Daily makes it clear that students at the University are overwhelmingly in favor of legalization. Students understand what is at stake in the struggle to rethink how society acts when it comes to drugs.

The incongruous enforcement of cannabis-related laws on local, state and national levels has effectively put cannabis users in a quagmire. For example, though recreational cannabis use is legal in Ann Arbor, medical marijuana patients cannot consume on University premises.

Since Michigan’s referendum on medical marijuana, passed in 2008, greater protections have been extended to cannabis users. However, there still remains a need for more reform.

The federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, and top Justice Department officials are openly hostile to any further legalization and choose to lock Americans up in prisons instead. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., recently introduced legislation to address the impacts of cannabis on mass incarceration, but going against an unfavorable Senate and Attorney General promises to be an uphill battle.

To resolve differences between progressive local drug ordinances and hostile federal mandates, statewide initiatives across the country have sought to bring these matters in their own hands — namely in the form of medical and recreational cannabis reform. Devolving drug reform to the agency of states, however, is not sustainable; cogent and inclusive federal guidelines must protect the interests of state constituencies.

The draconian drug policy instated over the past four decades has produced a ripple effect across a multitude of other social conditions. This has impacted urban, suburban and rural communities alike.

The University’s own Prof. Heather Ann Thompson has demonstrated how “tough-on-crime” attitudes contributed to the demise of Detroit’s vitality. Particularly, the opioid crisis has hurt suburban and rural America.

Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw noted the discrepancies in the policing of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the opioid epidemic of today. From the outset, Nixon’s harsh criminal justice policies were racist and implemented to target people of color, as crack cocaine became more frequently associated with African Americans. 

The White House commissioned a task force to research and address the opioid epidemic and decided that declaring a national emergency was the best solution to solve this complex issue. Only a solution that takes into account the corporate and bureaucratic instruments that abetted in creating a public health catastrophe is sufficient.

These consequences, unfortunately, still remain pronounced; the U.S. Justice Department has largely kept, and in many instances eclipsed drug and criminal-justice-related directives made during previous administrations. As detrimental to this tendency is the fact that the head of the Justice Department favors abstinence-based drug education to be taught in our nation’s schools, which has been proven ineffective.

Varying levels of enforcement from state to state have created an inherently unequal system of law, which disproportionately affects groups such as minorities and those who are impoverished, funneling these groups in a spiral of indictment and incarceration for years.

Students are not immune from the detrimental effects of the war on drugs, either. Across the nation, campus policies continue to discipline students for drug use at alarming rates

Thankfully, students today realize how much drug enforcement has failed in recent years, which will hopefully bring about a paradigmatic shift in how American society legislates, enforces and discusses issues pertaining to drugs in the future. We recognize that cannabis reform is not a panacea for structural inequalities and alleviating criminal injustice, but it is a step in the right direction.

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Correction: This article has been updated. When originally published Nov. 14, 2017, the second half of one sentence was erroneously missing. We have added back in that part of the sentence to ensure it reflected the author’s intended sentiment.

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