April 24, 2014

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Higher Ground

Pot is a winner

Can you get a contact high from election results? It does seem possible with the euphoria among activists over last week's votes on cannabis issues. 

"It clearly gives massive momentum to the anti-prohibition movement," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "It again challenges the federal government and sets precedent for other states to very soon follow."

The votes were historic for cannabis activists in Michigan and across the nation. All of the ballot proposals in Michigan cities — Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti — passed. Voters in Colorado and Washington state made groundbreaking decisions to end state-level prohibition in favor of regulating and taxing cannabis in manners similar to alcohol and tobacco. Massachusetts brought the total of states with medical marijuana laws to 18.

It wasn't all buds and bongs. Oregon rejected a legalization initiative heavily tied to a proposed hemp industry; Arkansas voted down a medical marijuana initiative; Montanans failed to overturn strict guidelines on medical marijuana, such as prohibiting providers from accepting anything of value for their services.

But overall things moved forward in the fight against cannabis prohibition. No state had ever voted for legalization before. Many activists believe that getting a state to legalize marijuana would lead to more states following suit, and eventually getting the federal government to rescind cannabis prohibition.

"I think what we're going to see is that other states will see the model of regulation and will increasingly do what the public is already doing — that is support regulating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco," says Karen O'Keefe, director of states policies for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which worked with the campaigns in Washington and Colorado.

Detroiters approved Proposal M, which — at least under city ordinance — legalizes possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana by an adult 21 or older on private property by 65 percent to 35 percent. Flint and Ypsilanti voters passed lowest law enforcement priority for marijuana enforcement ordinances. Grand Rapids voters made use and possession of small amounts a civil infraction punishable by a fine of as much as $100. And in Kalamazoo, voters chose to allow as many as three dispensaries in the city. It seems there is a message there for legislators.

"I'm delighted," says attorney Matt Abel, director of Michigan NORML. "We expected to win, but that 65 percent approval rate was great. While it may not be huge in the big picture, it does peel back one small layer of prohibition."

Detroit City Council members, who were mostly silent about Proposal M before the election, have been mostly negative about the outcome. Council President Charles Pugh told the Detroit Free Press that "it was really a waste of time." And Councilmember Brenda Jones said, "We will not be writing an ordinance that says something that's illegal is legal." 

Apparently council members haven't given much thought to the issue, because these were the same kinds of things they were saying a couple of years ago when the petition initiative to put the marijuana proposal on the ballot was rejected by the city Election Commission — and before the state Court of Appeals told them it had to go on the ballot. Now that it has been voted on as a revision of the city charter, the council doesn't have to do anything. It's written and it's been passed.

"I think that they are truly concerned about substance abuse issues in Detroit," says Tim Beck, chair of the Coalition for a Safer Detroit, which put the proposal on the ballot. "They are also afraid. They truly believe things are going to get worse. They are trying to send a tough message with their pronouncements. The reality on the ground when this settles down is there will be fewer marijuana arrests in Detroit. I know that some police are secretly happy about this. They will have less paperwork and less hassles to deal with. There is no upside for them to do anything but do what the voters ask."

I've got to say that while I stood in line to vote, conversations around me were in support of Proposal M. One man, who looked to be in his 60s, said that he was on chemotherapy and he wanted to try it out. A woman who looked to be at least 50 said she was concerned about so many youngsters getting arrested. It's clear that we need a new approach to marijuana.

It seems to me that it would behoove the federal government to consider the will of the people nationally. Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 by 55 percent, and Washington state voters passed Initiative 502 by the same number. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers released a statement saying, "Despite my strongly held belief that the 'legalization' of marijuana on a state level is very bad public policy, voters can be assured that the Attorney General's Office will move forward in assisting the pertinent executive branch agencies to implement this new provision in the Colorado Constitution." 

Gee whiz! Imagine having your state attorney general bow to the will of the people. I don't think Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette considers the will of anyone but himself.

In the long run, it will be the federal reaction that defines this battle. Whatever that reaction is, it will probably be delayed. The Obama administration has plenty to deal with in the aftermath of the election — most prominently the economy, not to mention things like rescuing the East Coast after two major storms. Public opinion is far ahead of the politicians on the issue. The most reliable polls show that 50 percent of Americans support legalization and regulation of marijuana; support for medical marijuana is at 80 percent. The most important number is the 55 percent margin that voters in Washington and Colorado gave to legalization. Do the feds want to take on two states about this?

"The big question that's been asked all over the place is, of course: What will the feds do if the states keep moving forward?" says St. Pierre. "If the state licenses the cannabis, the federal government is largely leaving them alone. Colorado has seed-to-sale regulation. The feds are not giving them much grief. Compare that to California, where the state has not given the permission to selling marijuana in a regulated taxed way. That has left the state open for federal meddling. It looks like if the state sanctions them and there is a cooperative relationship between the industry and the state, the feds are not going into that hornets' nest. ... For 40 years a slow but sure run of states and large cities have been abandoning the federal policies. It's going to take a couple of more states to push the federal government into the corner." 

We all know that animals are most dangerous when they are cornered. But this second Obama administration may be a different type of beast.

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

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