Inside last night's hearing on Hamtramck's proposed anti-pot law

click to enlarge Hamtramck City Council. - Photo by Michael Jackman
Photo by Michael Jackman
Hamtramck City Council.
Anybody who’s been following Hamtramck’s unusual decision to examine a law prohibiting possession of marijuana knows that the issue would eventually come before council. Today’s piece examines what happened at the work group and meeting last night:

A bit of humor kicks off the work group session before the council meeting. Councilmember Ian Perrotta arrives bearing treats “in honor of the hearing.” The treats in question are brownies, about which Perrotta hastens to add, “Don’t worry. There’s nothing illegal about them.” City Manager Katrina Powell adds a joke of her own, that the tin foil they're wrapped in constitutes paraphernalia.

It is a nice way to blow off a little steam before the meeting. You see, the city council is required (and, yes, willing) to listen to citizens discuss pending litigation. But when the issue is a proposed new ordinance against marijuana possession, it can draw quite a crowd, and quite a lot of testimony.

Perhaps in anticipation of a busy evening of speeches, the council will not have a public hearing on the law tonight. The three-minute time limit on public comments will prevail. It’s an opportunity to get more input from residents about what they think a law, if any, should look like.

When legislation is introduced, it will probably include several different versions, including one with a decriminalization provision bearing a nominal fine. As one official at the work group put it: “We want to go back to the drawing board so we can give the public what they want.”

When 7 p.m. rolls around, all the councilmembers are present, and spectators in council chambers occupy almost all the seats, a strong showing. (To get that out-the-door crowd, you generally need two wounded constituencies on the same night.) The assembled throng then patiently sits through the presentation of two awards for valor and the bone-dry presentation of a city audit.

When the period for public comment is announced, a hush descends over the chambers in anticipation of a half-hour of speeches about marijuana. Everybody gets ready for it. The first person to stand up at the podium is a Middle Eastern man. He marshals his bravery and addresses the council:

“The reason I’m here is just to let you guys know about my ice cream truck. I had it parked where they don’t want it, in the back yard, so I pulled it out, and I went to get insurance for it, and, you know, they towed it …”

What follows is a story about police suspecting his insurance is fraudulent, and threatening to take him to jail. The man presents his insurance to anybody who will look. The whole thing is unexpected and, er, random. Mayor Majewski graciously suggests the man walk out into the hall with Police Chief Anne Moise to settle the matter.

The next speaker doesn’t seem to understand that the proposed ordinance is not about medical marijuana. He’s hopping mad about it. When it is finally made clear to him that the law under consideration would target recreational marijuana, not medical marijuana, he brings up a related point: Hamtramck should have dispensaries.

“Why is everybody so afraid of this?” he asks. “They have cards, just like when you go into a pharmacy and you have a prescription, and the doctor gives you anything you are prescribed. I don’t understand why we don’t have anything over here, instead of us traveling in Detroit all the way to Eight Mile? It would bring revenue to the city of Hamtramck.”

In fact, the next speaker is passionate about dispensaries as well. It’s Jamie Lowell, co-founder of the first licensed dispensary in Michigan, Third Coast Compassion in Ypsilanti. While it’s a little off-topic, at least Lowell knows his stuff and gives a good, quick talk on the matter.

He tells the council that his dispensary has worked transparently with local government to produce a successful endeavor, with inspections passed and licenses renewed by Ypsi’s municipal government. “There seem to be a lot of cities and townships that want to wait and find out more direction from the state before making such a move,” Lowell says. “But there is no guarantee of when or if anything is going to happen on a statewide level, or how reasonable it may be expected, particularly from this legislature at the moment … And so you have the power to be more broad and liberal than state law. You can be more restrictive, of course, but you could take it upon yourselves to do something the people clearly want.”

Lowell notes that Hamtramck already put decent dispensary policies into place at one point. He notes that they would need to be updated and changed a little bit, because “you waited around long enough to see if the state was going to offer much direction, and there’s just no guarantee in that.” He offers to talk more, offer a presentation, or to discuss his experiences.

Basically, three speakers in, and nobody has correctly identified the issue at hand. (And they say marijuana doesn’t cause brain damage.)

One woman marches up to the podium and makes her points. She says, “Since 1972, 20 cities in Michigan have voted for decriminalization or reduction of penalty. We’re talking about moving in the opposite of the policy direction that’s been established now for 35 years.” She adds that, when people have a record, they have a harder time getting and maintaining employment, and points out that the city has high unemployment as it is, and that the law would likely have more people struggling to get by. She gets a round of applause as she heads back to her seat.

Another man comes to the podium and sees the lack of a possession law as right in line with Hamtramck’s reputation for tolerance. He says, “I’ve lived here going on two years. It’s a great community. I like where I live. I like the people that are here. Every time I go over to a gas station or to a corner store I can engage in a conversation with somebody of a different culture. I love where I live. I love the residents. I would definitely frown if there were some kind of ordinance put into place that would prohibit the use of marijuana or anything like that. I believe that Hamtramck is a very liberal community. I believe that it’s a very diverse community. And part of what makes Hamtramck so great is being able to have these different walks of life and being able to have a welcoming community and be a part of a community where you can be yourself.”

Another local man gets up to the podium and declares: “I haven’t smoked pot or had alcohol in over 35 years, myself. And yet I feel it’s the right of the individual to choose whether they’re going to drink alcohol or smoke weed. It’s a personal decision, and individual human right to choose to use something that doesn’t hurt or endanger anybody else. People who smoke marijuana are not criminals. Pot-smoking is very common. More common that some people would like to think. It’s a weed that grows naturally in your yard, and you fine people $500 for possession? That’s absurd. That’s a crime itself. This will drive people away if you pass any law like this, especially the new hipster community that’s coming into town, who we need vitally.”

(It’s worded a bit strangely, but the sentiment holds true: Councilmember Perrotta will declare later that the Hamtramck Music Festival caused an estimated $170,000 to be spent in the city.)

The man continues to rant: “Marijuana is much less dangerous than alcohol, which is legal, and kills millions of people. Marijuana is even less dangerous than sugar, which creates health issues, causes diabetes, and kills millions. The trend in the country is towards decriminalizing drugs, not only marijuana. The War on Drugs has been a complete failure.”

Finally, he declares: “I’d like to urge you, if you do vote, please vote no on this law on possession of marijuana. I hope you don’t make any ordinance at all about this. And I’d like to know who initiated this process and why. We need more information why this whole thing is on the table right now. It’s probably (someone) who’s never smoked.”

Matthew Abel, founder of the law firm Cannabis Counsel, finally stands front and center to address the council. Perhaps it’s so clear that any proposed possession law is going down in flames that Abel chooses to spend his time discussing Hamtramck’s failure to enact licensing provisions and zoning ordinances for collectives and compassion clubs, which were passed almost five years earlier.

As Mayor Majewski prepares to close this portion of the meeting, she is asked to clarify what the issue is by one councilmember. She says, “Right now there is no city ordinance forbidding the possession of marijuana, so when people get busted right now, they get busted for paraphernalia.”

It actually touches off an interesting discussion that involves 74-11, a law covering first-time Michigan drug offenders, providing for a plea without conviction. City attorney Travis Mihelick tries to make the case that a new law against possession will help defense attorneys be better able to keep their clients’ records clear.

He declares, “You can’t take a paraphernalia off your record … You can for use or possession. It’s an additional tool for the prosecutor and the police to allow a record to stay clean … It was brought to us by criminal defense attorneys.”

Attorney Abel joins in, agreeing that 74-11 “allows you to come out with a clean record.” But he adds, “The transverse of that is that the paraphernalia statue doesn’t get your license suspended, but a marijuana charge would.”

In other words, the regular Hamtramck police practice of busting people for paraphernalia may still be less harmful than busting people for possession. It’s also worth noting that, out of the dozens of voices condemning the proposed ordinance today, the only voice speaking in favor of it is Mihelick’s.

Councilman Miah says he had several residents complain about “being misled by our city attorney.” The matter is one we covered before: Mihelick was quoted by the Hamtramck Review as saying the proposed ordinance was ordered by Judge Paul Paruk, who then emphatically denied to us that he made that request.  

Mihelick maintains that he brought the matter to the judge’s attention, and stated his intention to pursue the matter, and that the judge said: “OK.” (Hardly the command to “do something” quoted in the other story.) Mihelick maintains that the proposed anti-pot law is actually “an additional tool to allow the court and the prosecutor to keep someone’s record clear.”

Councilman Miah says, “You just brought us an ordinance. You didn’t have any discussion with us prior to bringing us an ordinance.” It’s a fair point. The time to sell the council on the ordinance, to explain the problems, to lay the groundwork for an ordinance’s acceptance, was several weeks ago, and it's now clear the law is something residents and councilmembers simply do not want at all.

Just as Miah and Mihelick are about to begin bickering, Mayor Majewski brings the exchange to a halt.

Perhaps the whole thing sets emotions a bit on edge. Dissatisfied with one item on the consent agenda, Councilmember Miah and three other councilmembers torpedo the entire agenda, which includes resolutions approving a $90,000 grant and other expenditures. For about 10 minutes, matters large and small, including the all-important Knights of Columbus Tootsie Roll drive, are imperiled, but a bit of fancy parliamentary procedure manages to rescue all the items. At the end of the day, the wheels of government grind forward — and almost assuredly without an anti-possession ordinance.