Ann Arbor Didn’t Go to Pot 

A place that marijuana activists look to with a gleam in their eyes

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If Michigan has a “city upon a hill,” a beaming locale that is a showplace for the state, a place where the economy seems to roll along with hardly a glitch, a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” to borrow the description of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, it would be Ann Arbor.

With the University of Michigan, the U-M hospital, the annual art fair, a popping downtown and plenty of people walking the neighborhoods, an abundance of jobs and a low crime rate, Ann Arbor is the kind of place that lots of cities would like to be.

It’s also been a place that marijuana activists look to with a gleam in their eyes — and a bit of envy. In 1974, Ann Arbor voters passed a revision to the city charter decriminalizing marijuana and making possession of less than 2 ounces a civil infraction, punishable by a $5 fine for the first offense. In 1990, citizens voted to raise the penalty to $25 despite Republican Mayor Gerald D. Jerrigan’s claim that the lenient law was an “embarrassment” to the city.

Now, as activists across Michigan force municipalities to consider decriminalizing marijuana, people must seriously consider the effect of that policy in their towns. Five cities in Michigan voted last fall to soften penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana; Ferndale, Jackson and Lansing have petition initiatives in place to put the question to voters this fall.

In recent years, every time Michigan voters get to choose they have voted to soften the marijuana laws. This has become so prevalent that anti-marijuana forces, feeling threatened, have begun to push back. A “Mobilizing Michigan: Protecting Our Kids from Marijuana” campaign kicked off in Macomb County a few weeks ago. Rep. Sander Levin stood with them and promised to bring more federal anti-drug money to the state for combating drugs. Many of these people are truly afraid of what might happen if marijuana was legalized.

As arguments are made, pro and con, maybe it’s a good idea to look at the city with the state’s longest-lived decriminalization policy. (That would be Ann Arbor.) Apparently the place has not gone to hell since sanctions against the evil weed were lowered.

“The nightlife is above average for a city of our size [pop. 114,000], we’ve got great schools, great parks and the lowest unemployment rate in the state,” says state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and who recently introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana statewide. “There are a lot of things going for Ann Arbor. The decriminalization that the community enacted decades ago, I think is a good example of how a local community can address these issues in a more reasonable and successful way. Marijuana is in communities all over Michigan and governments are completely impotent in addressing that. … We need to educate young people about making smart choices. Prohibition doesn’t result in the outcome we’re looking for.”

Ann Arbor also showed atop a listing of Michigan “Hot Spots” on the Pure Michigan website last week, with the notation that it’s “where the pulse of a big city comes with the handshake of a small town … A place that embraces the unique and unusual.”

Maybe there’s something in trying to embrace Ann Arbor’s “uniqueness.” On May 1, Grand Rapids authorized implementation of a decriminalization statute, six months after it was voted in — although the city manager is calling it a “pilot program.” Maybe the city needs to see how things go there, but Ann Arbor’s been piloting that program for four decades.

Charmie Gholson, co-founder of Michigan Mothers Against Prohibition and an Ann Arbor resident, points to another example of what happens when “War on Drugs” laws are rescinded: Portugal — that small country on the Iberian peninsula — decriminalized all drugs 12 years ago. Gholson heard the Portuguese health minister speak in Buffalo, N.Y., at a recent Drug Policy Alliance event.

“When police there catch people using or possessing any illegal drugs, they now refer them to a doctor. They discuss their drug use with a doctor,” says Gholson. “Drug use has not gone up, but the HIV and AIDS rates have gone down.”

The bottom line is, there are plenty of examples to dispute the doomsayers when they say marijuana is going to “destroy our community.” There are 17 states, including our neighbor Ohio, that have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of the substance. And in Michigan you can almost play a game of “what city am I in” with the mosaic of laws that are popping up.

Let’s see, I’m in Detroit: It’s legal to have as much as 1 ounce. I’m in Grand Rapids: it a civil offense, with a $100 fine. It’s like the dry county-wet county issue you sometimes run into when traveling (hello, Indiana). You can’t have it here, but you can have it there. Maybe it would help to make a map of the state denoting what the laws are in order to keep it straight. The problem is, you’d have to amend it often since things seem to be changing so fast.

The Lansing initiative has the support of Mayor Virg Bernero. Marijuana is getting so popular in Michigan it seems like he would have done better had he run on a pro-marijuana ticket during his failed 2010 bid for governor.

“Marijuana is available all over Michigan,” Irwin says. “We need to stop pretending that marijuana prohibition is working. It’s stale. It’s not working to keep marijuana out of the hands of anyone. In order to protect children we have to give them information to make the right choices. We need to have a more honest policy.”

Even conservative Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, whose home is in Ann Arbor, has shown no interest in fighting the tide of marijuana reform ⎯ although he has signed a slew of conservative legislation into law. Maybe he has seen the impact on Ann Arbor and it’s not as bad as some think.

“We don’t have roving bands of teenagers trying to offer people pot,” Gholson says.

That may be true. But at least one day each year, Ann Arbor does turn into the site of a giant pot party. That, of course, is during the city’s annual Hash Bash, when a few thousand enthusiasts gather to listen to activists speak — and smoke a lot of pot in public.

City Councilmember Sabra Briere welcomed attendees to Ann Arbor this year and encouraged them to spend money. It seems that the politicians in Ann Arbor have seen the light, which is surprising because politicians seem to be the last ones, next to law enforcement, to come around on this issue.

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje is another politician who is enlightened on the subject. In response to the Lansing petition initiative, he told a TV news station, “Our police don’t go looking for this and it just really never rises up to be any sort of an issue for anyone here. Alcohol is one of our biggest problems. Obviously students drink. Adults drink. But perhaps people who are recent adults, maybe they drink a little more to excess, but again marijuana never even enters the conversation.”

So if someone starts telling you that your town will go to hell in a handbag if it decriminalizes weed, point them to Ann Arbor. That’s one hell of an example.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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