Push set for legal pot in Michigan
Facing a law enforcement crusade, push to end cannabis prohibition gathers strength
Published: January 2, 2012
That smoky aroma in the air — is it the scent of positive momentum, or simply that of high hopes doomed to be dashed?
News Hits is talking about the news that pro-marijuana activists are set to launch an effort to amend the state Constitution in an attempt to end prohibition of the drug in Michigan.
That's right, no middle-of-the-road decriminalization effort. Activists here have decided to get Michigan law enforcement completely out of the marijuana picture.
And if by chance New Year's Eve revelers are legally lighting up joints along with popping Champagne corks a year from now, we'd say the person most responsible for that will be state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who, along with some others in the law enforcement community, has made a crusade of going after medical marijuana patients, caregivers and dispensaries.
"We feel there is little alternative considering the blatant abuse and violation of the MMMA [Michigan Medical Marihuana Act] by the police and many prosecutors," says Matt Abel, a Detroit-based attorney who will be directing the campaign that is expected to officially kick off Jan. 12. "If we don't try to do something now, it may be years before we have appropriate reform."
(More information about the Committee for a Safer Michigan's proposed ballot measure and ways to support it can be found at help.repealtoday.org.)
Abel, whose law firm specializes in handling marijuana-related cases, tells Metro Times via e-mail that 322,608 valid signatures must be collected by July 9 to qualify the proposed amendment for the November 2012 election.
Efforts are already under way to organize volunteer signature-gatherers and other types of support.
Brandy Zink, who is with the group Americans for Safe Access and uses marijuana to help control epileptic seizures, tells News Hits that advocates like her see the Constitutional amendment as a necessary next step to help further protect the ability of patients to obtain and use their medication.
She cites the crackdown on dispensaries in many parts of the state, as well as the failure of the state to consider expanding the list of ailments that enable certified patients to be able to legally use the drug, as being among the reasons she and other patients intend to get behind the effort to legalize the drug outright.
"What's happening now is that the law is being used to help target patients instead of protecting them," says Zink. "We feel a real urgency to do this now because of the backlash against the MMMA."
As with the current law, users would still be subject to arrest and prosecution by federal law enforcement authorities even if the effort to amend the state Constitution were successful.
Generating grassroots support will be crucial to winning this fight, advocates say.
When nearly 63 percent of Michigan's voters approved a ballot measure to legalize marijuana for medical use in 2008, the campaign cost upward of $1 million. However, this time around, it doesn't appear — at this point, at least — that funding of that magnitude is going to be available.
So the task of getting the proposed amendment on the ballot and then mounting a successful campaign come election time is daunting at best. Just collecting the signatures is a significant challenge, and, if that's successful, there will almost certainly be a counter-campaign supported by the proponents of prohibition.
Even some longtime supporters of legalization are skeptical about the chances for victory.
Activist Tim Beck, who was involved in the successful MMMA effort, says he is concerned that support from the general public isn't high enough at this time to justify making a statewide push for outright legalization.
Beck and others point out that, as a general rule, there should be polling that shows that more than 55 percent of voters approve of a measure such as this at the time a campaign is launched, because support will inevitably be eroded once the counter-campaigns kick in. As far as the Hits knows, there's been no polling conducted to date showing a level of support that high in Michigan.
"To be honest, the [pro-marijuana] community is divided as to whether this is the right strategy," says Beck about the statewide effort.
Beck says he and some other advocates intend to concentrate their efforts on local initiatives. He points to Kalamazoo as an example. Last November, 66 percent of the voters there voted to amend the City Charter to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana the lowest priority for law enforcement there.
Activists are prepared to launch similar efforts in a number of other cities this year, says Beck.
He also points to the fact that supporters of the statewide campaign will face the challenge of gathering signatures during the winter months.
Despite those obstacles, advocates point to a number of factors that they say are working in their favor.
With about 120,000 medical marijuana patients registered with the state, an army of potential foot soldiers with much at stake in the issue could help significantly in the effort to gather enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.
In addition, even though activists may be divided as to which strategy to pursue, no segment of the community has a vested interest in seeing a statewide measure fail.
That's an important contrast to the situation in California in 2010, when a legalization attempt was opposed by a number of growers who feared that passage of the measure would cut into their profits.
> Email Curt Guyette