Detroit Voters May Decriminalize Marijuana in November

Posted June 20, 2012 in Criminal Law by

The Michigan Supreme Court has cleared the way for a marijuana decriminalization measure to appear on city ballots in the coming November election. If voters pass the measure, it will allow adults 21 and over to use and possess up to one ounce of marijuana on private property.

The decriminalization initiative is sponsored by the Coalition for a Safer Detroit, a group of citizens who argue that removing marijuana possession penalties will allow Detroit police officers to focus on more serious crimes.

The group first proposed the ballot referendum in 2010, but it was rejected by the Detroit Election Commission because it conflicted with state law. After the coalition challenged that ruling, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that the election commission had a “clear legal duty” to put the referendum on the ballot and reversed their decision. The election commission appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which recently refused to hear their appeal.

“We’re delighted but sad, in a way, that it really had to come to that,” said Tim Beck, Chairman of the Coalition for a Safer Detroit. “It seems as though you have to get a court order to actually allow people to vote even though you follow all the rules and do everything you’re supposed to.”

With proponents of the measure confident that it will pass in the fall, the Detroit Police Department is sending mixed messages about how it will receive the new law. Detroit Police Sgt. Eren Stephens said that the department would honor the law “if it’s handled in an appropriate way, and this is what the citizens of Detroit choose.”

But Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee reminded voters that “a city ordinance can’t trump” state and federal laws that prohibit marijuana, adding, “If you look at the amount of devastation that substance abuse has caused in the inner city, anything that makes it easier to access that, fundamentally I’m opposed to it.”

Matthew R. Abel

“Yes, they still could arrest someone for possession under state law,” said Matthew R. Abel, local counsel for the Coalition for a Safer Detroit and Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Certainly, they could try to turn them over to the feds as well, but there’s nothing to stop them from trying that now. And the feds generally aren’t interested in any marijuana busts of fewer than 100 plants.”

Even if Detroit police feel the need to continue making marijuana arrests if the measure passes, they will lose their financial incentive to do so.

“The practical effect of busting people under the state law will be that the fines for possession will go to the state rather than to Detroit,” said Abel. “It’s not that we’re trying to fund the state or defund the city. The Detroit Police Department needs money, frankly. I live in the city and I’m worried about violent crime. We’re not trying to hurt the police financially, it’s just that the loss of fines is a natural consequence of decriminalizing possession. The idea is to remove their legal obligation to make these small marijuana arrests, giving them more time and resources to focus on serious crime.”


Summer of Reform

Even bigger changes are on the horizon out West. Marijuana advocates in Colorado and Washington are working to build support for referendums that would legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol in both states. Both initiatives will be on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Amendment 64 would legalize marijuana use, possession and limited home growing for adults, establish a system for regulating and taxing marijuana sales, and allow for the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp. The similar Washington Initiative 502 does not legalize industrial hemp and includes a maximum blood THC threshold for driving under the influence of marijuana.

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On June 13, Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana, reducing the punishment for personal-use possession to a $150 fine. The same day, the New York State Assembly passed its third bill legalizing medicinal marijuana. That effort now awaits action in the state Senate, where the first two attempts stalled out in 2008 and 2010.

Days later, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged his support for a proposal to grant local police the discretion to issue fines of between $100 and $500 to people caught with up to 15 grams of marijuana.

Also this month, the Texas Democratic Party adopted marijuana decriminalization as an official part of their platform, and the North Carolina Democratic Party endorsed resolutions to legalize medicinal marijuana and the industrial cultivation of hemp.

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