Pot, pols and polls

Just because the Detroit Election Commission chose not to put the question of legalizing marijuana on the Nov. 2 ballot doesn't mean there's no cannabis drama in this election. At least for Michigan medical marijuana activists, the contest for attorney general is crucial.

"We're concerned about the potential election of Bill Schuette as attorney general," says Tim Beck of the Detroit Coalition for Compassionate Care, an organization that supports the use of medical marijuana. "He is obsessed with destroying the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. He led the opposition back in '08. There's a lot of stuff that he can do that is pretty damaging. We've got some people who are actively helping David Leyton, not that he is a person that wants to give joints to everyone. He believes the will of the voters should be respected. Under Bill Schuette it would be lucky if terminally ill people had access to medical marijuana."

In a debate broadcast on East Lansing's WKAR Public Television last week Schuette, a Republican and former state appellate judge, state senator and congressman, re-stated his opposition to the law that was passed by 63 percent of Michigan voters in 2008. Leyton, the Democratic Genesee County prosecutor, did not take a definitive stance either way during the debate. 

According to a Sept. 16 Epic/MRA poll, Schuette leads Leyton by a 39 percent to 25 percent margin among voters, with 31 percent undecided and 5 percent going with minor candidates. A key finding in the poll was that most Michiganders just don't know who Leyton is, while longtime officeholder Schuette enjoys wide name recognition. I left a voice mail message at the campaign office of Schuette and sent an e-mail to the campaign of Leyton; neither of them got back to me by press time. Other candidates, Gerald Van Sickle of the U.S. Taxpayers Party and Libertarian Daniel Grow, were not included in the debate.

Overall, Leyton has focused his campaign on government reform; Schuette has highlighted a tough-on-crime message. However, the attorney general's office is important to the medical marijuana question because it can set the agenda for the state by choosing whether to go after compassion clubs or even doctors who seem too prone to recommend marijuana to patients — which qualifies them to apply for state cards. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act clearly states that patients can legally grow, possess and use the plant, and designated caregivers can grow plants for specific patients. It is less clear when it comes to distribution between patients in more dispensary-like settings. 

California-like dispensaries are not addressed in the act and are illegal, which is why Michigan has compassion clubs, places where transfers between patients and suppliers who aren't necessarily their designated caregivers take place. When it comes to these clubs, current Attorney General Mike Cox has left any enforcement up to local authorities.

The result is that things are all over the place — mirroring the hodgepodge of medical marijuana laws across the 14 states and the District of Columbia that allow it. Communities such as Livonia and Royal Oak have taken fairly prohibitive stances toward distribution centers, while Ypsilanti, Roseville, Niles and Allen Park have allowed compassion clubs with various restrictions. Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has taken a tough stance, busting dispensary-style compassion clubs in Ferndale and Waterford in August for alleged violations of rules about how much and between what parties marijuana can be transferred. Advocates say patient-to-patient transfers are legal; that is where the legal debate stands. 

"Each municipality has to figure out for themselves how they want to deal with this, with no guidance from the attorney general," says Jamie Lowell, of the Third Coast Compassion Center in Ypsilanti. "I've been to a lot of meetings. They all have a different idea. For some people, their mind is open but it's totally foreign to whatever they've thought before. They need to be educated, sometimes opposing forces get there first. Sometime they restrict it to home growing, some allow for commercial enterprises, sometimes they're completely prohibitive."

Dispensaries, or compassion clubs as proponents call them, are cropping up all over the state with different levels of response from their communities. That could change under an attorney general who decides to take on the issue and use the position as a bully pulpit to challenge dispensary-like operations across the state. The costs of fighting busts in court could financially crush some operations, regardless of the legal outcomes; the threat of busts could dissuade others from getting into the business at all. 

"Schuette's guidance is, 'No, they are prohibited, they need to be busted,'" says Beck. "He can lean on prosecutors to do that."

The medical marijuana law itself can't be changed without a three-quarter super majority of the state Legislature, but the details of how it's administered will be fought out in the courts. Decisions and precedents will govern what's allowed. Some of it comes down to a question of whether you can teach an old dog new tricks. After a lifetime of drug wars and prohibition, can our law enforcement officers change their attitude toward marijuana used for medical purposes?

"It actually happens quite quickly," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington, D.C. "As juries come back and nullify the prohibitions, when law enforcement comes back with a similar case, prosecutors don't take them on. If past is prologue, across all states, the statistical chance of getting a jury to go against a well-defended medical marijuana patient or grower will go down."

While Leyton may have waffled on where he stands vis-à-vis medical marijuana during his WKAR debate, activists are very clear that they want him as attorney general rather than Schuette.

Hazy outlook:
Trying to get the lowdown on the International Holistic Health Cannabis Convention 2010 Halloween Harmony and Harvest Festival (you try to say that real fast) is like playing a game of find the roach in the back seat of a crowded Camaro circa 1975. The event was scheduled for the Pontiac Silverdome Oct. 29-31, but it will definitely not happen there. Apparently some fear and loathing among the financial backers of the convention, and a less-than-friendly attitude from Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard that made getting various permits more onerous, put the kibosh on things there. There has been some word circulating on the Internet that it will take place at Cobo Center, but as of press time that was far from certain. At this point, organizers may be rethinking the nature and scope of what they want to do, not to mention when and where. Stay tuned in here for further news.

National outlook:
Although the question of actually legalizing marijuana in California is on the Nov. 2 ballot, lawmakers there aren't waiting to see what happens. Last week Gov. Arnold 'Terminator" Schwarzenegger signed a law downgrading the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. That means as of Jan. 1, 2011, petty possession is punishable by a $100 fine and no criminal record. California voters could render that moot on Election Day, but either way the Golden State continues to lead the pack in liberalizing marijuana laws.

Larry Gabriel, who also writes the Stir It Up column, will alternate with John Sinclair in the Higher Ground space. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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