Would Detroiters vote to, practically speaking, legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults on private property?
That choice may be on the November ballot if the Committee for a Safer Detroit (CSD) gets a favorable ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court. CSD's case against the Detroit Election Commission stems from a 2010 petition initiative to put the question on that year's ballot. The Detroit Election Commission refused to put the question on the ballot – claiming that the proposal conflicts with state law and therefore couldn't be on the ballot. The CSD sued the city in Circuit Court and the judge ruled in favor of the city. CSD then appealed the decision and the state Court of Appeals ruled against the city 2-1 – saying it wasn't up to the commission to decide if the proposal is against state law. Now the city has appealed to the state Supreme Court.
If the high court declines to hear the case or decides in favor of the CSD it will be on the fall ballot. The CSD's Tim Beck is feeling pretty good about the chances of that happening, and about winning the subsequent election. Detroiters voted 78 percent in favor of medical marijuana in 2008, compared to 66 percent in favor statewide. But will that translate into a majority in favor of across-the-board legalization? It's hard to say, no polls have been taken specifically in Detroit and there is a big drop-off of support when you move from medical marijuana to legalization of marijuana. National polls show about 75 percent of Americans support medical marijuana, but a recent Rasmussen poll found 56 percent support legalizing it for recreational use.
"It was very, very easy to get the signatures on the petitions," says Beck. "We got them in three weeks. I watched the petitioners at Farmer John's market at Conner and Gratiot. People were like, 'Yes, I'll sign that.' I think there is a very strong differential in the public mind that there has to be better uses of police resources than for small time drug crime. Police resources are diminishing pretty rapidly in Detroit. …It is only my intuition, but I do believe it's going to win overwhelmingly in Detroit."
There aren't any polls out there gauging the attitude of Detroiters or of African-Americans in general. Detroiters are about 90 percent black. And while African-Americans tend to be socially conservative – witness the furor over President Obama's support for gay marriage – there seems to be growing support for a legalize marijuana position.
"I think that word is finally getting out; I think you're going to see a major shift regarding the African-American view on the drug war," says Neil Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national organization of former and current police officers.
Franklin cites the popularity of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, which argues that the War on Drugs and its unequal enforcement in the black community creates a permanent underclass of people who have been arrested for minor drug violations. Although studies show that whites and blacks consume marijuana at about the same rate, blacks and Hispanics are arrested for it at three times the rate that white people are.
In addition, Franklin points out that the NAACP called for an end to the drug war last July during its national convention (though you wouldn't know it from the Detroit chapter's MIA status on the issue), work of the Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (a group of progressive African-American faith leaders), and the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a group whose mission is: "committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people."
"They're building networks in several cities," Franklin says of the 21st Century group. "This kind of work didn't exist a year or 18 months ago. It's only the beginning. … [NAACP President] Ben Jealous continues to speak out on this issue as well."
Maybe getting the question on the ballot in Detroit is the real fight. Even Michigan State University sociologist Cart Taylor, who has been a vocal opponent of marijuana, often citing its effect on his students, concedes that the majority of Detroit voters would legalize marijuana.
"It will pass," says Taylor. "To me it is already legalized in terms of a norm, not just in Detroit but in the whole nation. It's very much part of the fabric of this nation. To pretend that it is not there is foolish. … I think the main thrust of it will be pushed by youth culture. Many of them feel like, 'What's the big deal? Marijuana is here.'"
Maybe folks at the Detroit Election Commission felt that keeping it off the ballot was their last defense against marijuana because, given a choice, people will probably vote for it. That would probably be the case in other majority black urban communities across the nation. The reason is pointed out in Alexander's book and is also discussed in another book, Don't Shoot by David M. Kennedy: Black people are tired of seeing their youth terrorized by police and the legal system, and many are unwilling to cooperate with what seems like an occupying force.
"Police don't even protect the information which protects the person who gave it to them," says LEAP's Franklin. "They end up being victims of retaliation. In addition they don't trust because police go into these communities and are constantly searching everything that moves. Citizens see the police pulling down the pants of guys in the street. They see all these arrests for frivolous reasons – failure to obey a police officer when what the police are doing is not lawful. … Citizens don't trust the police any more. You can't be effective in solving crime in that community if you don't have the buy in of the people."
Maybe people aren't buying into the drug war when they see the biggest harms being caused by the people who are supposed to be upholding the law. The law does not stop the demand, and where there is a demand someone will provide the supply.
So while folks are trying to fix Detroit, maybe the trust of the people could use a little shoring up. Maybe the relationship between the police and the community needs to be fixed. Stopping the penny ante marijuana busts would help. And if the police won't stop it, give the people a choice and they probably will.
The campaign to put the question of legalizing marijuana in Michigan on the fall ballot soldiers on. Whenever I ask folks from the Coalition for a Safer Michigan how its going, they talk about the many volunteers they have out there – about 2,500. However, they don't brag about how many signatures they have. They need some 322,000-plus valid signatures by July 9 in order to make the fall ballot. A few publications have published numbers that have leaked from CSM show that the organization has well below 100,000 in hand. The drive could still be successful, but it's not looking good right now.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]