July 30, 2014

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Higher ground

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Why Bill Schuette Hates Patient Rights

SINCE BILL SCHUETTE was elected Michigan attorney general in 2010, he has fought tooth and nail against all but the strictest interpretation of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, and aided municipalities in finding ways to thwart and circumvent provisions of the law.

Actually, his efforts started even earlier, as he led the forces fighting against the MMMA before it was passed in 2008. Since then he has been a holy terror, ripping away at any interpretation of the law that was not strictly set out in writing. The attorney general’s office has joined in county prosecutions against medical marijuana defendants and shut down dispensaries across the state. He has intimidated patients, caretakers, doctors, municipalities, police and county prosecutors by declaring that federal marijuana law supersedes state law.

For instance, Schuette has said that police who confiscate marijuana from patients would run afoul of the law if they returned the medication to them even after they prove they are certified by the state. He said that police who return it risk criminal prosecution as drug dealers because marijuana is illegal under federal law. Of course, Schuette’s opinion of the supremacy of federal law doesn’t extend to other things, such as the Affordable Health Care Act, which he opposes.

So it was no surprise when I saw a headline on the MLive website the other day declaring, “Decriminalize marijuana? Michigan AG Bill Schuette doesn’t want to go down that road.”

Schuette was responding to proposed legislation introduced last week by Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil offense, punishable by a $25 fine for the first offense. There would be no criminal record involved.

“We should not go down this road of legalizing drugs,” Schuette told a Lansing television newscaster. “It exposes young kids, children, to ever more potent drug use, and I think that’s not good for them in the future.”

Apparently Schuette still considers Reefer Madness to be the cutting edge of information about marijuana. Others in his camp seem to be hanging on to this concern for saving children from the scourge of marijuana. It may be their last gasp.

On Tuesday, CARE of southeastern Michigan, an agency that gets 60 percent of its funding from the Macomb County Community Mental Health Office of Substance Abuse, kicked off its “Protecting Kids from Marijuana” statewide campaign.

That’s fine, but I wonder why they think decriminalizing marijuana or having medical marijuana is a threat to children. Nobody fighting to end marijuana prohibition is saying anything about giving it to children. They tend to argue that legalizing and regulating marijuana will do more to keep it away from children than the current situation. Nobody is asking to see their ID when they go to buy marijuana from an illegal dealer. When I was in college there were two guys on my floor of the dormitory who sold marijuana to anybody who wanted it.

By the same token, if I wanted a beer I had to find someone who was old enough to buy it — and then go off campus to get it. Under the MMMA, anybody who wants to procure medical marijuana must have a card (although recent court rulings have pretty much stopped all above-the-board marijuana sales). And, in the case of minors who may have a medical need, a custodial parent and two doctors have to sign the application.

Protecting children is why, despite Schuette’s and others’ opposition, two bills recently introduced in the state Legislature are so important.

Irwin’s bill to decriminalize marijuana would go a long way toward keeping families together and not stigmatizing marijuana users for life after a conviction for (a small amount of) drug possession — making it difficult for them to find jobs, get education or get government assistance. This helps children if families are intact and breadwinners can bring some pay home. Also, decriminalization takes some of the profit out of sales and disincentivizes drug gangs from running the market, which has been found to be pretty deadly.

“Despite the fact that we’re spending a minimum of $325 million a year on arresting, trying and incarcerating marijuana users in this state, we know marijuana has never been more available,” Irwin said in a press conference, pointing out that the status quo is not working.

The other bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, would give local municipalities the choice to allow marijuana dispensaries to operate in their areas — or not. One of the biggest issues around the MMMA is that it allows for patients and caregivers to grow marijuana, there is no provision for those who can’t or don’t want to grow their own, or for those who have had some kind of disruption of their garden. Having places where patients can go to buy marijuana is a common sense solution that also aids the state economy through fees and taxes. It also wouldn’t hurt the state economy if we stopped chasing marijuana users around and incarcerating them.

Both state bills have bipartisan support. However, just because they were introduced doesn’t mean they will be passed — or even see a vote. Still, the fact that people in our state Legislature are bringing these issues up is a huge step forward. Nothing

is going to change if we don’t talk about it.

 

HERE’S A LITTLE something else regarding federal supremacy. A recent report from the federal Congressional Research Service on legal issues around marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington state pretty much agrees with Schuette about the pre-eminence of federal law. At the same time, however, the report concludes that, at best, only the biggest commercial enterprises would be under possible federal scrutiny and prosecution. The report also cites legislation introduced allowing those operations to continue, such as the Ending Federal Prohibition of Marijuana Act of 2013 and the Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act of 2013.

In all, the report cites six pieces of marijuana-friendly legislation — although none of them is law. The big deal about this report is that it doesn’t contain a hard line declaring that legalization will not stand in Colorado and Washington. Mostly it’s a lot of legal hemming and hawing about this and that.

At the same time, there are signals coming out of Washington, D.C., indicating a softening of the federal attitude toward marijuana. Last week, a group of Democratic congressmen introduced legislation to create a national commission to review U.S. marijuana policy and issue recommendations to federal lawmakers.

The subjects to be considered are: how federal and state laws interact; the cost of marijuana prohibition and potential revenues from taxation; health impacts in comparison to alcohol and tobacco, and the impact of prohibition on criminal justice issues.

Perhaps more impactful is the Obama administration’s new approach to drug policy that should be announced soon. In a call with reporters last week, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, signaled that changes in the administration’s approach might be at hand. The administration’s new “smart on crime” policy would downplay criminalization in favor of treatment.

Maybe it’s time to get smart — as long as nobody named Maxwell Smart is involved.

 

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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