Taking on pols at the polls 

A state vote on legalization may not win, but could at least start an important dialogue

The No. 1 story about marijuana in Michigan in 2011 was the wrath anti-drug warrior Attorney General Bill Schuette unleashed on medical marijuana facilities and users. Schuette used his bully pulpit and legal resources to intimidate dispensaries, people who work at dispensaries, people who grow marijuana and medical marijuana patients — working with friendly county prosecutors (particularly in Oakland County), federal authorities and state legislators to try to put the medical marijuana genie back in the bottle.

Marijuana legalization activists are working hard to make 2012 a very different story. In reaction to Schuette's tactics, a group calling itself the Committee for a Safer Michigan is kicking off a campaign this week to amend the state constitution and flat-out legalize marijuana for adults. This is a citizens' initiative that requires collecting 322,608 valid signatures in order to get on the fall ballot. 

"The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act was passed in an effort to remove patients from the line of fire," says CSM spokesperson Charmie Gholson. "They are increasingly investigated in a backlash to the MMMA. The sick and dying are in harm's way. We want law enforcement to focus on violent crime instead of going after patients and caregivers, which is increasingly happening."

Indeed, anybody who is involved in medical marijuana at any level is potentially in harm's way because Schuette has declared the supremacy of federal law on this issue (although he asserts states' rights when it comes to, say, health care). In several prosecutions of card-carrying patients or caregivers, judges have ruled that defendants cannot cite the MMMA in their defense. 

"We're doing this because of the failure of Michigan to enact the law the way it was written and passed by voters," Gholson says. 

CSM has already put up a website (help.repealtoday.org) where volunteers can register to help. That grassroots aid is the only way this petition drive will be successful, because there isn't much money available for this campaign. It looks like there will be initiatives in five states to legalize marijuana, and the deep pockets of billionaires Peter Lewis, George Soros and John Sperling, who have previously bankrolled initiatives across the country, won't be available in Michigan. 

"This year is going to be a very active year for initiatives," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Every successful initiative since about 1996 has been funded by Lewis, Soros or Sperling. Washington state and Colorado are the funded initiatives this year. They're probably going to make the ballot. Montana, Michigan, Missouri and California are nonfunded. People on the ground are filing papers and moving forward with a grassroots effort. They're probably going to make the ballot in California too."

Lewis, who St. Pierre says is historically the largest funder of marijuana initiatives, is funding the Washington Civil Liberties Union and SAFER in Colorado because they have long-established organizations on the ground. Lewis only funds initiatives he believes will be successful and apparently believes those have the best chance.

St. Pierre isn't making a direct statement about Michigan, but it's pretty easy to infer that he thinks it's a long-shot effort to get on the ballot — let alone win at the polls. He's told me in the past that in order for an initiative to be successful, support should have been polled at about 58 percent for six months. Others say that you need support at around 55 percent. Scientific polls in Michigan have shown support for legalization of marijuana at 51 percent; once the anti-marijuana forces kick in, that support will erode. But that doesn't mean that St. Pierre thinks the petition effort is useless.

"You might not win, but you create a vehicle for public discussion," says St. Pierre. "It creates a fairly long vehicle over several months for discussion. Politicians, law enforcement and mainstream media don't want to have these discussions. In a state like Michigan that has that vehicle, why not use it? If you don't get the big funding, statistically you don't have a chance of prevailing, but you create an educational vehicle. All that process is good. The more marijuana reform is discussed, the more prohibition is exposed as a flawed, bad policy, the more likely we see the public supporting these reforms. In 1995, about 20 percent of Americans favored legalization; about 50 percent want legalization now. This is a good thing for advancing the laws in general."

There will be plenty of discussion about marijuana across the state and the nation. On the state level, Flint's Ben Horner, publisher of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Report, plans on having numerous workshops around the state sponsored by the Vote Green initiative. (Not to be confused with the Green Party.) Horner hopes to have discussions about everything from the "recall Schuette" campaign to municipal efforts to assign marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority to voter registration drives to efforts to bring disparate activists across the state together. 

"This is to support progressive, compassionate thinking about cannabis in general," he says. "There are a lot of ideas out there. I don't know what the final solution is going to be. "

Vote Green workshops are already planned for Waterford, Prudenville (near Houghton Lake), Lapeer and Ann Arbor. Horner points out that each of the 110 state representative seats are up for election this fall, creating an opportunity for voters to engage their state reps on the issue. If nothing else, state House elections could easily engage a lot of people who believe they can make a difference on the issue in their communities. 

"Well under 1 percent of people who use cannabis are involved in the legal reform of cannabis," says St. Pierre. "Absent that dedicated funding from one of those known sources, this is a maypole to organize around, to draw people out from their smoky closets." 

The fact that Wayne State University is hosting a Jan. 27 symposium on the implication of national and state marijuana reform shows that the discussion is taking off. Former state Attorney General Mike Cox is scheduled to give the keynote address at the Law School's Spencer M. Partrich auditorium. Seating is limited, and the event is likely already full, but more information is available at 313-577-8032.

Nationally it's hard to ignore that there could be five different states calling the question on legalizing marijuana. That's an unprecedented amount and something national pundits will have to address. If even one of those state initiatives is successful at the ballot, there will be celebration and caterwauling across the nation. 

"California's Prop. 19 kicked off a massive discussion in the last election cycle," St. Pierre says. "Many failed initiatives forced a public discussion the elected body politic doesn't want to have. If Michigan and Montana officials had not clamped down so hard on medical marijuana, I don't think we would have seen these initiatives. The vicious political rebound has pushed activists to say, 'You don't like medical marijuana; you're not going to like legalization any better, so we'll go for that.'"

It's going to be a very interesting year. By the time November rolls around, we could be having a very, very interesting discussion.

More by Larry Gabriel

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