Push set for legal pot in Michigan

Facing a law enforcement crusade, push to end cannabis prohibition gathers strength

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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.

"I believe that, because the cannabis community was divided, with some growers and [medical marijuana] dispensary operators failing to get behind Prop. 19, that directly contributed to the failure" of that measure in California, says Steve Elliott, who is based in Washington state and writes a blog covering marijuana-related issues called Toke of the Town.

That sort of entrenched opposition by people who otherwise should be supporters of legalization doesn't exist in Michigan, Elliott says.

On that point, Beck agrees. There may be a disagreement about which is the best strategy to pursue at this point, but no one in the community appears to be actively opposed to a statewide legalization effort. In fact, he says, there could be a symbiotic effect created by pursuing a two-prong strategy, with local efforts helping to turn out voters who would also support statewide legalization.

The Michigan campaign could also benefit from the fact that legalization efforts are also expected to be on the ballot in at least three other states: California, Washington and Colorado.

"The more people hear about legalization initiatives under way in other states, the more realistic it sounds," says Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the national pro-legalization group NORML. "Once the national media notice that it is not just California anymore, it becomes a much bigger story. In some ways, the people from Michigan can benefit from that."

Activists in the state also hope that reason and fact will win out over heated rhetoric. As they point out on the campaign's website, no matter where you stand on the issue of marijuana, attempting to combat its use through prohibition is an expensive failure.

"This is a public health issue, not a criminal issue," says Zink. "Prohibition is a failed policy, and it is a harmful policy. We want safer communities, and we want to achieve that by having police focus on real crime so that they have the resources available to protect and serve us."

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at [email protected] or call 313-202-8004.

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